The Avon Ring Narrowboat Holiday,

Introduction — We depart Oxford — Instructive examination of GPS — Storm on the Motorway — We acquire a boat
So, we’re back from the Narrowboat Holiday thing. We went with Black Prince, about whom considerably more in a separate post, from Stoke Prior, in Bromsgrove round the Avon Ring. Getting to the actual hire base was, as I have perhaps already faintly hinted an interesting experience, featuring no fewer than three hours sat on Oxford Station whilst Worst Great Western apologized for the fact a member of the crew of the train supposed to be taking us to Worcester had yet to arrive at Paddington (Although, to be fair to them, they shut up about that after the first hour, and began to call it a “unit failure” instead).

Once we and all the other passengers (and, as it happened FGW themselves) had given up on the train ever making its way out of the station in London, let alone going so far as to arrive anywhere else ever again, things began to improve, and they laid on a special train to do the job of the one they couldn’t find the staff for, making, in the process, an almost indecent amount of fuss about the trouble they were having to go to for what they clearly saw as a mere marginal benefit on our collective behalf.

Still, we got to Worcester at last, long after our intended connection had passed out of all living memory, and piled into a cab, where we spent an instructive fifteen minutes watching the driver attempt to program his built-in GPS system for the first time. For some reason it wasn’t happy with such a commonplace method of location as a postcode, and instead insisted upon being given the number of the house we wanted to go to. Naturally, we had no such thing, businesses being frequently bereft of actual numbers when the GPO does such a good job of finding five-hundred square yards of sheds, boats and canal water with only the humble postcode to work with, so the man guessed “111″ and demanded we pay him up front, presumably so that his already considerable toil should not be wasted.

After that had been settled, however, we were on our way. The weather had caught up with us, by this point, and treated us to a vast and concentrated downpour, which made it incredibly hard to see more than a yard in front of the car (indeed, had it not been for the slightly metallic tones of the GPS woman telling us that “in fifty yards you are at a roundabout” it is quite possible that we should have missed out dog-leg onto the M5 altogether and simply driven direct from Worcester to Bromsgrove as mere commonplace mortals might imagine should be the case. Given the horrific weather and the weight of the luggage, we put up with it and, in the end, managed to locate the base a trifling three-quarters-of-a-mile from the point where his GPS victoriously informed us of our arrival.

Things picked up somewhat, at that point, and we were given the keys, a map, some pre-ordered shopping and a brief (not to say skimpy) overview of the boat and a couple of lifejackets in case of accidents and then we were pointed towards Worcester and on our way.

Ruth begins steering — We run aground — Locks, encounters with — We run aground once more — The Second Day — Aground once more — Help is at hand — We run aground — Further help provided — To the pub!

We got through the first lock with nothing in the way of trouble (and, to be fair, little help from the Black Prince chap, which was fine because the understanding of locks I got in my canal-mad phase around the ages of six through to ten still held) and then Ruth was obliged to take over steering, because she took to it more naturally than I did, and someone had cluttered up both sides of the canal and left little room for error.

Presently, we encountered a boat heading the other way, and pulled chummily over to give them room to pass. Somehow, in the process, we stopped the boat from going anywhere at all, and I spent an interesting twenty minutes untangling what appeared to be a plastic bag filled with string, other plastic bags, and bailing twine from the propeller, in the hope that this would fix the problem. As it happened, we’d run out of shallow water, and didn’t really know what to do about it, so we sat there, hauling on various ropes from the bank, and shoving the boat about with the big long pole (the “10 foot dragon pole,” as we ended up calling it, in a bout of awful geekery) until the wind saw what awful asses we were making of ourselves, caught us full on the side and blew us back into deep water.

From then on, we were more careful of the edges, and made it down to the start of Offerton locks without anything else going wrong. We did not, however, make it through Offerton locks themselves. They exist in a flight of about five, and some muppet – who, if I ever meet him, I still intend to brain with a windlass – had left open the paddle on the fourth lock down, which meant the basin above it had about a two foot of water left in it, or “a full foot less than we needed to float”.

By slamming the engine on full, and hauling frantically at the rope tied to the bow, it was just possible to move the thing onwards, at something like one inch every ten minutes, but the sun was going down, by this point, and hire boats don’t come with navigation lights, so we had to give up, tie up, and call it a night.

The next day went better – enough water had seeped down from the higher reaches of the canal overnight that we were actually floating by the time we got up – and we struggled through the remaining locks at Offerton in a little over two hours, making, as I recall, for the somewhat confusingly [at least, confusingly if you come from Newport] -named Tibberton, where we arrived in the early evening, and attempted to moor, an action which involved an awful lot of me tying on the front end of the boat whilst the back swung madly out across the length of the canal, despite Ruth frantically trying to control it. We finally got the back end in, and Ruth threw me a rope and I hauled like fury to try and bring the fat cretin of a machine a bit closer to the bank, and, after ten minutes of intense cursing succeeded in dragging the hull firmly into three inches of cloying mud, from which it refused to budge.

Enter, in the manner of a plot-essential NPC, a cheery-faced old man, with a stick in one hand, and a dog lead and a bag of nuts in the other, merrily wandering up the towpath and chucking nuts into the hedgerow for the sake of the birds. Out of politeness I smiled at him, said good morning and, unnecessarily, in retrospect, said we were trying to moor the boat.

“It’s very shallow, there,” he observed.
“Yes, it is,” I nodded, in what I hoped was a sage sort of way, “We’ve run it aground.”
“Ah.” he sighed. “It used to be very narrow here, and they made it bigger, but they didn’t dredge it properly. There’s properly dredged moorings down below the road bridge – why not leave the boat where it is for now, wander down there and see if there’s space?”

That seemed suspiciously like a good plan, so we followed it. There was indeed space lower down, and we legged it the half-a-mile back up the towpath to where we’d previously stopped (and which, we later realised, wasn’t remotely like the centre of Tibberton we’d taken it for, but was, in fact, merely a bit of the canal from which you could see a couple of houses on a by-road).

Half an hour later, we’d cast off and were furiously gunning the engine and thrusting madly at the side of the boat with the dragon pole in a bid to force it out of the mud I’d previously been bursting to get it into. Frankly, we weren’t getting anywhere, and I’d resorted to leaning on the pole, with my feet up on the bank of the hedge and the rest of me at an angle of about thirty degrees, thumping my end of the pole with my shoulder and swearing. And, away in the distance, the old man was returning, and here we were, looking thoroughly dishevelled and as if we’d totally ignored him. Blast.

“That,” he called to me, as he got within a yard of us, and could finally get his voice over the dutiful roar of the engine, “is the last muscle you want to be using with a boat.”

I don’t recall what I said – I know it took a lot of self-control not to snappishly ask him precisely what muscle he thought might be a good idea, given that I was the one on the bank and Ruth was the one wiggling the tiller and holding the throttle forwards – but I do know that his answer proved to be fascinating.

“You want to use the engine to move the boat,” he said. “Put her in backwards and she’ll come off.”

And damn me if the old chap wasn’t right. It sounds so simple, when you think about it, but it wasn’t something we thought of. For this I blame Black Prince who’d pointed at the Dragon Pole and said “That’s how you get the boat unstuck if you need to,” but we were pleased with that old man. Thanks to him, not only did we discover that, for all the navvies built canals to a uniform depth, a hundred or so years of increasing alternative transportation had long since destroyed their noble ideal, but we also made it gladly down the stretch of canal and under the bridge to the Tibberton public moorings, and to the pub. It made everything so much easier, not having to clamber onto the roof, dig one’s heels in at the grabrail and attempt to punt 58 feet of solid steel sideways against a bank of mud, or haul at a rope like a demented two-hoofed carthorse.

The pub was excellent. Ruth, fresh out of Lent, made delighted noises at the prospect of a proper pint of beer, and we managed to get them to give us food, since all we had to live on, at this point, was a slice of bread and some repulsive instant rice, a pack of which we’d been forced to work though whilst stuck in the flight of locks the previous night and which, for all it claimed to be “spicy sweet and sour” flavour somehow, by dint of much determined effort, contrived to taste of nothing at all, including rice. So I had a steak and chips, and, as we turned in for the night, it looked like the holiday wouldn’t include any major disasters, after all.

The meanness of Swans — Cunning of an eider duck — Panic at the locks — Water, water everywhere, and, look, a load of crets — Worcester — Plans disrupted — Shopping — Food — We encounter River locks — Forth onto the Severn.

Breakfast next morning was toast. I like toast, by and large, even when it’s made on a poky ten-by-six inch grille, and we had proper butter, so it was a good start, despite the early morning chill. It did, however, leave us with a nub end of crust, which I attempted to heave out of the window at a passing eider duck. The plan was frustrated, however, by the insistent presence of two burly swans, who were loitering alongside with the obvious intention of causing as much as a nuisance to the feeding of non-swan waterfowl as they possibly could.

With some difficulty, I managed to pitch the lumps of bread further and further to the left, and the swans, driven by their mania to eat anything that fell within six inches of the surface of the canal before it actually hit the water and got within range of the duck, followed. I then deployed “Plan part 2″ and pitched a bit of bread right out of the other end of the window and landed it slap in front of the eider duck, which ate it. And the swans, slimy white devils that they are, went insane and attacked that poor eider duck like deranged mountain goats (though why a goat should be on a canal, I really can’t say).

That was the last of the bread that went out of that window.

Five minutes later, however, as we finished up the toast, we chanced to look out of the window on the other side, the one adjacent to the towpath. And there, peering patiently in at its reflection in the coffee pot, was the eider duck. Cautious opening of the window, in a bid not to scare it, brought it closer by about a foot, so we pitched it the rest of the bread in little lumps suitable for a slyish bird, and prepared to cast off.

The swans, somewhere in that quarter of an hour must have worked out that they’d boobed, because they didn’t leave us to our own devices, in the manner of the rest of their vain, vicious and determinedly aloof kind (they always remind me of bent-necked cats, do swans; I think it’s something about the way they preen themselves, hiss at you and then expect to be thanked for it), but followed along behind the boat for the next half an hour, alternatively pecking at the side of the boat and fawning about with their wings in that aggravating picture-postcard style which they think makes them look more appealing.

We finally shook them off at a lock, which they declined to enter in case the strange currents elicited by the paddles scuffed their tails up, and so we banged the top gate shut behind us before they could sneak along the towpath and proceeded on to Worcester.

We managed approximately one lock, and then Ruth went into a panic.

The front end of the boat, as I drained water out from the lock, apparently rose up, in what, to Ruth, tilted rapidly backwards, and stuck on 20 tons of fast-descending metal, appeared to be a needlessly alarming manner, and she yelled at me to get the paddles shut, and blasted on the horn, which nearly deafened me.

The horn, it turned out, was an accident; she’d be desperately flailing for the switch that worked the bilge, in case she’d somehow filled the back of the hull with water, but it didn’t do anything for my nerves, which were already fairly fraught because of the lousy time we’d had of it on the first day, and were starting to have again, and whose prospect I did not relish when viewed over a further twelve days, against time pressures.

The boat levelled off, however, and some investigation revealed that what had happened was that the water level, in falling, had contrived to make the heaver stern, full of engine, tilt back relative to the ground, whilst the bow, filled chiefly with a mostly empty water tank, was still prancing merrily about a foot or so higher up. Coupled with Ruth’s foolishly reading Death on the Waters, the safety book we’d been given, the night before, this had created a “help we’re stuck on the front gates and going to die” panic, but at least we were able to resolve it relatively simply.

After that, we did the rest of the flight with remarkably little problem, and had some help from a group of hugely friendly people who were coming down behind us, saw we were slow (there was, remember, only me to run round and open and shut all the gates and paddles) and very decently elected to help, thus speeding up both their and our progress.

These people were very nice and friendly, and we liked them. I only wish I could say the same for the company I feel obliged to describe as “that boat with the cretins on it,” who were attempting, with markedly little understanding of how a boat works, to get round the Stourport Ring in a week. This, I believe, can be done, and I imagine it can be done by people who are relatively inexperienced.

It cannot, however, be done by people who intend to go about it as if they were in control of a souped-up rusty Corsa with nasty blue LEDs underneath it, rather than something big, and heavy, and powered by a rather feeble prop-and-diesel-engine combo. The thing about a narrowboat holiday is that it isn’t intended to be something one does all in a rush, with the throttle on full and the wash you’re making playing havoc with everything else under the sun. Nor is a boat designed to go from “stationary” to “full speed” in less than, say, five minutes or so.

These people, however, had evidently been sat in the kitchen hoping to nibble some left over party food at the “basic understanding of how this works” party, and hadn’t really grasped that boats aren’t subject to the same laws of physics as cars. So, having tried to overtake us, badly, and bashed their front into our middle they made shocked and horrified noises to see that this had caused their back end to swing in. And their solution was “push the back out from the other boat,” which grounded us, forced their front end back into our middle and generally made me want to board them and beat them over the head with the boathook. I reigned in my more bloodthirsty inclinations, however, and went and sat in the kitchen and longingly eyed the gin.

Three minutes later, they were at the lock ahead of us, and the entire party rammed the bow into the back, made a horrible scraping noise, and disembarked to set the lock to go their way. They could not, of course, have bothered to put somebody off ahead of time, and get the lock all ready for them, because they were too busy going fast on the canal itself to do anything as tiresome as save themselves some time. They got it open at last, however, and managed to get the boat in, and then a woman from the boat talked to me about how it’d taken them all day to do the 38 locks which make up the Tardebigge and Stoke flights. Which, if that was the way they go about things, is not very surprising – it took us four hours and that was in circumstances which, though I’ll come to later, didn’t involve stopping to let other boats go through the other way, which is a) time consuming and b) why people say you should always allow a full day to do the Tardebigge flight.

Happily, I didn’t have to exert much effort in saying that, because they got the lock emptied, and the bottom gate open and soon the air was filled with the desperate roar of an engine revving on full, and still failing to make a boat accelerate any faster than it would if the kid on the tiller actually knew how such things worked. We never saw them again, after that; they were probably busy wondering how they could get the engine to go faster than it actually could so they could make their way up the Severn at their usual ten miles an hour…

…If I sound bitter there it’s not really bitterness; I’m just baffled as to why people would spend a lot of money – they were going for a week, and you can buy a gorgeous bleeding-edge computer for the sort of money it costs you to hire a boat for a week – spend a lot of money going on what is, effectively, a “going at four miles an hour and admiring the scenery” holiday, if they didn’t like going at four miles an hour, and didn’t want to go slow enough to admire the scenery. They could, after all, have just lobbed the money at some charity to take a bunch of inner-city waifs to see cows, and things, and gone and driven up and down the M6 for a week, stopping at Travelodge’s and getting to do 70…

Since we were low on water, we planned, as we made our way through the outskirts of Worcester (which is a very nice place in general, and has a statue of the old Queen outside the courthouse), to stop overnight at Diglis Basin, the main canal basin in Worcester, and the place at which the two great river locks take the Worcester and Birmingham canal down into the River Severn. We therefore intended to skip past the visitor moorings available at the Commandry, from which King Charles the First commanded the Royalist force in the Battle of Worcester, and get through the last couple of locks before the river, get some water and tie up for the night in the basin.

Accordingly, I hopped out at the bridge ahead of the Commandry lock and trotted down the towpath to make sure it was set for us. It wasn’t, so I got the paddles open and was waiting for it to fill up when my eye was caught by a notice, warning that the Diglis Basin was closed for moorings. I’d seen a similar notice at the locks where Ruth had the panic earlier, so I wasn’t unduly worried – the basin opened again on March 3rd, and here we were, a month or so later. Really, I only read it to while away the time.

It was as well, however, that I did. The notice I’d encountered before had evidently been put up some time earlier, and had been either forgotten about or deliberately abandoned – the basins were still closed; were not, in fact, due to open again until September, and the hundred and fifty yards of towpath above this lock, towards which Ruth was continuing to bring the boat, was the last chance we had to moor up before we had to go on to the Severn.

I turned round and made frantic “stop” signals, and tried to get Ruth to go back, but she thought I was trying to say “come forward slowly,” so it wasn’t until she was well past the free mooring points, and level with a lot of other boats that I managed to get her to realise she needed to back up a bit.

Backing up in a narrowboat, as it turns out, is not an easy feat to manage; the steering, ordinarily effected by the water being thrust back along the rudder by the propeller, tends to go to bits when, instead, the water is drawn over the rudder and into the prop, and so we spend a good hour trying to moor up, me going frantic on the bank, occasionally trying to catch a rope, when Ruth got within something approximating to chucking distance, which was rarely, and the rest of the time lashing out at a swan that had just been chucked a lump of stale bread by a child and was now determined it was going to bite my shoe. I got quite fed up with it after the fifth time and tried to boot it back a few feet, and it got very uppish and started flapping its wings at me, although, to be fair to it, it got embarrassed and slunk off when I hissed savagely back.

Ruth, meanwhile, spent most of her time on the opposite bank, endeavouring to free the boat from a tree. Periodically, it worked, and she was able to take it forwards again, but as soon as she tried to reverse and move the boat to get it level with where it needed to be tied up, she went slap into that tree again. She got quite fed up with it, in the end, and sent the boat backwards through the overhanging branches, and a bit of the tree, sensing that this was not playing the game, caught hold of the mop, where it was resting in it’s nook on the roof, and tried to pitch it into the water. It was fortunate for the tree that I wasn’t over there myself; I’d have been going at the branches with the saw on my penknife and bodily hacking my way clear of it, but Ruth preferred to take her time over it, and got free at last without taking too much tree with her, except a bit which I fished out of the bathroom two days later, in Tewkesbury, and which had obviously smuggled itself aboard for what it hoped was the duration of the trip.

At length, as I say, we managed to moor up alright, and we wandered into town to get some supplies, being still worryingly low on food. We found a Sainsbury’s, in an arcade in the shadow of the great Cathedral, and filled our two rucksacks with an assortment of wine, snack foods and basic essentials such as rice and potatoes, and we also managed to grab eight litres of spring water, in plastic bottles, which we thought ought to keep us in tea until the morning, when we could fill up at Diglis without the compunction to stop somewhere and go to sleep.

For supper, we hiked back to a canal side Pizza Hut, which saved us having to put in any real thought or effort, and from whence we spied a Blockbuster, which we raided for sale DVDs, landing ourselves with copies of Usual Suspects and Wild Wild West, a profoundly silly film that contrives to combine Salma Hayek, guns, and Kenneth “What d’you mean ‘They’d’ve cut some bits of Hamlet when they actually performed it’”? Brannagh in a steam-powered wheelchair.

It made for a pleasant evening, at any rate, and gave us a chance to unwind after another horribly stressful day, which, given the healthy terror we had of River locks, and mooring, navigating and generally not getting ourselves killed on the Severn, was probably a good thing.

Come the morning, however, we had little choice but to fortify ourselves (in Ruth’s case, with egg and mushroom, in mine with a solid bacon-and-egg-and-mushroom sandwich combination) and press on. At Diglis we managed some very neat parallel-mooring at the water-point; I hopped off the bow onto the stern of another boat, and got from thence to the towpath to tie us on, before running down to the other end and catching the stern rope and pulling that in. As we were, at long last, filling up with water, a boat came in from the Severn, so we let them moor on us and they filled up with water too, without having to execute any complicated manoeuvres, for which they were unnecessarily grateful – we were not, after all, in a hurry to tackle a River, given how badly things had managed to go on man-made and controlled waterways.

Still, we moved off at last, and into the massive river locks, which seem (though it may just be the sudden change of scale and false memory) to have been big enough for at least three narrowboats side-by-side. We had help, there, however, from a hugely friendly chap who opened the downstream gates for us, and let me climb onto the boat whilst we were still in the lock, thus removing the grave concern we’d had for what would happen when Ruth tried to moor up, alone, on the Severn, to get me back on board.

Thus, suited, with the sensible paranoia of those who grow up reading the annual Shropshire Star headlines that go “BOY, 9, DROWNS IN SEVERN,” in flamboyant orange lifejackets, we set out into the vast and weir-ridden waterscape that would, in theory at least, bear us down to Tewkesbury safe and well.

The Black Gate Opens — And Lo! There was width! — Successful Voyage — Upton-on-Severn — The Severn Barges — Sandbar Ahoy! — LANT-locked in Tewkesbury — Tewksbury Abbey — Fish ‘n’ Chips.

Avoidance of the Diglis weir, as it turned out, was not a major challenge, and nor, for all that they loomed into view, granite-grey and vast, were the twin river locks that separated the Upper Severn and Worcester. We’d not have liked the sight of that, I reckon, but our guidebook – which veered into hostility when describing the Severn in general – had helpfully informed us that they were manned, and so we tried our best to go with the instructions they gave us and moved into the leftmost lock, which was vast – we were, of course, on the full level, and the walls still rose above us by around five yards. It was a little alarming, especially since we had trouble stopping the actual boat where they wanted it (which is to say, within the confines of the lock), with the result that the two chaps from the control cabin came out, and leant over the side.

After a minute or so they evidently grew bored of merely spectating, and, in an attempt to get themselves involved in the proceedings nodded at the down gate.

“Someone’s beat you to it,” one of them suggested, eyeing a large prow-shaped hole just above the waterline, and then added “You want to hold onto them chains.”

That sped things up a bit, and they retreated to their cabin and let us down and opened the enormous gates (now about three times as high as when we went in there) and let us out into a wonderfully wide and warm stretch of water, from which we could see that the lock we had just come out of was the smaller of the two by far, and along which we fairly zipped, borne largely by the current.

The sun was beating down nice and hot, as we went along (with the result, amongst other things, that we got fairly burnt) so we debated whether or not to push on past Upton on Severn (the only safe stopping point on the river, partly because it had visitor moorings, rather than endless miles of privately-owned bank, but also because the moorings it had were pontoons, which save you from being left dangling when the level drops, or being pulled under and swamped when the level rises.

The advantage of going direct to Tewkesbury was that it would put us ahead of schedule – we were, against all the odds, still on schedule, but only because we’d planned to spend a day mooching round Worcester, so it didn’t matter that we arrived there, thanks to the bloody locks being dry, a whole day after we should have.

As the day wore on, however, the sun vanished behind a cloud, and a fierce wind got up which, when howling along the surface of the river, and pointed right at us by means of the bank, got quite chilly. That, combined with a distinct suggestion of encroaching darkness meant we decided to stop at Upton after all (whose “fleshpots,” our guide informed us “are a welcome distraction after the monotony of the Severn” – strong objection to willow trees, that chap) and, accordingly, we attempted to bring the boat alongside the pontoon.

Within three minutes we’d got everything sorted out, and discovered, in the process, that mooring to fixed posts is far simpler than having to jump out with a peg, hammer the peg into the ground, grab the rope and tie it on, and discover that the rest of the boat has floated back into mid-stream without any suggestion of a warning. We greased the stern-cock (which is to say, turned a handle and shoved some grease into the seal where the drive-shaft meets the prop) and attempted to pump some bilge out (which we’d been told was essential to stop ourselves from sinking, but which never came to anything because we never actually had any bilge at any point in the holiday) and turned in. Ruth got very annoyed when we watched Usual Suspects, because I “got,” insofar as there is an imperative to “get” the ending, which I shan’t be enough of a fool to spoiler here, but which I thought was obvious based on what I found myself wanting to think.

We took a saunter round the town in the evening, although there wasn’t a great deal of it to look at, and in the morning we set off once more on the final leg of the Severn. It was warmer, by then, and we were very much enjoying the river (“repetitive willow lined-banks” notwithstanding) and I, at least, was feeling much better than I had been about the whole enterprise, especially in contrast to the nightmarish time we’d had mooring up at Worcester, when, to me, it looked as though we were going to spend the whole fortnight lurching from hideous crisis to panic, and from occasional good bits where nothing went wrong to horribly stressy bits where it looked like nothing could be done about it.

All in all, then, we were enjoying ourselves on the way down, and we had fun dodging a huge river barge that was moored against a vast jetty down from Upton and which was being emptied of its cargo of dirt by a JCB that was pitching the earth onto a conveyor that hauled it up into what seemed to be a limestone quarry (we think it was some cement-mixing operation, of some sort). A little further down we dodged our way round the Perch,, another barge heading up, and this time, being full of cargo, amazingly low down in the water compared to the emptying Chubb we’d just passed.

Half an hour after that, Chubb herself was roaring up behind us, so we took a bit of creative liberty with the “make other boats overtake you on the left” rule and shifted over to the left of centre bit of the stream to let ’em get by (because, frankly, we weren’t getting paid, and they were. And, of course, there was bags of room and we didn’t want to cause a nuisance for the vast boat ten times as big as us…). They liked that, and waved at us as they went past, and they waved at us again, when, twenty minutes later, we passed where they were being filled up with yet more dirt a bit further down. It was a nice little operation they had going, by the looks of things, and probably very sensible; there wasn’t a road that followed the river, so I imagine they saved themselves a whole packet of cash in haulage and things, but it was still quite impressive that someone had sat down and considered river transport…

Once we were a bit closer to Tewkesbury, we began to worry a bit more about the sand bar, which apparently sticks out into the Severn at the point where the Avon joins it, and which you can’t really see. The British Waterways chap at Diglis had said it was OK, as long as we went downstream a bit before we turned, until “just before you see the warning signs for the weir,” which sounded rather a risky operation, and even the guide book broke off its tirade about the coming change from the (horrible) Severn to the (superlatively divine) Avon to point out that we should try not to ground ourselves on it. Having had such an easy go of the Severn so far, we were naturally concerned that this was where the whole thing would go pear-shaped, and the total lack of signs or other warning information that might suggest to us the location of the sandbar didn’t do anything at all to allay our fears.

As a result we described what might be called a circumspect navigation of the turn, and got caught slightly by the current as it rode merrily on towards the weir. We’d expected to, obviously, because it’d be fairly dim to imagine one could bring 58 feet of narrowboat round so it’s side-on to a river current and yet evade getting hit by it, but it still made for an interesting moment or two until we’d got within the banks of the Avon.

Tewkesbury river lock – alone, out of every other lock we encountered – runs at 90 degrees to the river. It is, however manned, and it was, at the time when we arrived, solidly remaining where it was owing to the lock-keeper being on his lunch break. As a result, we moored on the pontoon provided for just such an occurrence (again, with no problems at all) and followed suit with a simple meal of pasta-and-pesto-and-a-mug-of-tea, before the lock was made ready for us.

Getting in proved an interesting experience; a boat had gone in just before us (again, river lock, so two boats wide to speed things up) so we had to do a lot of shunting back and forwards, with the lock-keeper leaning over the rails on the edge and yelling things like “go faster! It’ll turn quicker!” which was faintly embarrassing. Once in the lock itself, on the other hand, things got a lot simpler, because it was all automated and run by the keeper.

The keeper, it turned out was a volunteer with LANT, the Lower Avon Navigation Trust, and he helped us hook our ropes round some bollards (to stop us crashing into the Watershed, the boat we were going up with), and sold us a useful guide to the Lower Avon (useful in the sense that, unlike our guide, it mentioned things like underwater obstructions, and how to avoid them) and then told us where we could moor up for the night.

That mooring went really well, too (gotta love actually fixed moorings!), especially since we got some help from a guy called Steve, who was filling up at the water point just behind us, and came over to haul on a couple of ropes. Then Ruth buzzed off to have a chat with the LANT dude, and I had a bit of a natter with Steve, in which he recommended another one of those “best chip shops in the country” you run into every three counties or so, and which we thought we’d investigate later on.

We took a wander round town, in the meantime, and ran into Tewkesbury Abbey, which is a fascinating building, with an interesting sort of history largely made up of scars and patchings-up, so we went and had a look round inside there, which actually took us a couple of hours. It’s really nice – quite an achievement in the teeth of some very High bits they seem rather proud of, which I always find a bit unsettling, not to say distasteful, but that’s probably just me – and it’s got some wonderful bits where they still have all the original paintwork from before the Reformation, which I do think is nice, if only because the world would be a more entertaining place if people realised that the neo-Classical columns they keep whipping up out of concrete ought to be done out in blue and red and gold, or something.

Still, as I say, it’s very nice, although I can see people finding it very dull if they’re not of the type that can cheerfully potter round a country church and graveyard, and make coo-ing noises at the old bricked-up doorways, and sigh occasionally when a headstone has a particularly tragic tale behind it. But really liked it, which probably makes me very dull, or old-fashioned, or something, but I can’t say I mind very much.

We tried to do a bit of shoe-shopping, after that, because I wanted to see if I could get some sandals, which, it turned out, I could, although they seemed to be falling apart before I’d even put them on, and they had a lumpy bit of plastic edging all the way round, which kept cutting into the bit of my feet where the arches are meant to go, and where they never do with me because I’ve gone flat-footed at some point in the last ten years or so – it’s probably all the running about they made me do at school; I knew it would never do me any good.

Ruth, meanwhile, spent her time writing a postcard to Tom, and forgot she needed to put a stamp on it, so she had to squeeze it in at the bottom right corner, with a little arrow pointing to it from a note saying “Sorry!!”

We found a post-box for the card anyway, and got a few odds and ends (mainly ends, in the form of snacks, and things) and then headed back to the boat, where I tried to walk in sandals without spiking my feet every time I took a step, and we fortified ourselves with gin. And then, as night drew itself over a town we’d already decided had an awful lot of things going for it, especially the fact it wasn’t Oxford, and had some delightful Tudorish buildings, we went and put the tin lid on a very good day by having some fish and chips which – though I can’t say they were the best I’ve ever had – were indeed really very tasty.

And, somewhere in the North of England, in the mists of a morning yet four nights hence, a cold and cynical postman delivering that first-class-stamped postcard will have taken it from his bag, and looked at it, and found the stamp and thought “O, now isn’t that kind of the sweet wee child,” and gone on his round a far nobler and kinder man, as a result.

Up the Avon without a Paddle — Further locks — Pershore — The Brandy Cask — Curry

We spent the next day working our way up the Lower Avon, which we did fairly slowly, being unused to going against the current. Still, it was a wonderfully warm day, and the landscape round there is OK, although it is a bit repetitive – willow trees, at least, vary from tree to tree, and you can get a hundred odd trees along one stretch. Water meadows, on the other hand, have this habit of looking just like the last water meadow you cruised by ten minutes ago, and continue to do so for a quarter of an hour until they become the last water meadow you went past ten minutes ago, and which looked exactly like the one you’re going past now. Never mind.

For the first time since Saturday we actually managed to have lunch – baked potatoes, eaten as we went along – and we met a few friendly people at various locks (although it’s damn hard going through a river lock where the boat needs to be held fast by ropes – Black Prince never gave us a rope for the centrehook on the roof, so I was running about opening paddles and gates and taking in slack all at once, but never mind…)

We got to Pershore in the early evening, and moored up behind the Watershed, who we’d come through with at Tewkesbury, and then we wandered over to the Co-Op for further supplies (including various bits and pieces for cooking chicken that Sunday, and sun cream and after sun to address the issue of being in the sun all the time – I was already getting arms that made me look like a navvy, and Ruth had caught a lot of the sun whilst sitting around and steering and waiting for me to do all the work). After we’d got those essentials sorted out, however, we managed to find a great little pub called the Brandy Cask which does some really good home-brewing, and which I’d recommend if you end up in Pershore any time soon.

We didn’t spend long there, which was a shame – only time for a pint apiece – but the world was, by this point, swaying in a really irksome manner which I can’t help but think was deliberate. I’ve contrived sea-legs before and been subsequently flummoxed by solid ground, but I’d never realised it was possible to get them from living on a canal. It is, though – the boat actually moves about an awful lot, at least when people move from one side to the other, and we’d got used to this without noticing, so the ground was deeply unpleasant.

Still, we picked up some curry on the way back, which was good because I’d been going mad for lack of spices again lately – Ruth’s aunt & uncle aren’t a fan of spicy things in the way I tend to be (I once ordered a ‘Diavolo’ pizza [all pizza places seem to have one with a name like that, I can’t imagine why] which came with some green chillies. Not jalapenos, mind, which I will admit are hot, just some vaguely spicy things, and Jerry told me I was being very brave…) but, then again, I’ve been eating curries since I was on solids, because they’re cheap, and filling and they make it easy to hide the fact that all you can really afford is some vegetables and some low-ish quality meat left over from the previous meal, so I’m kinda floundering now we’re out here and not eating at the All Spice every week or so…

Anyway, we took that back, fed ourselves up and watched, I think, Clue, and then went to bed, ready for the slog up to Evesham the next day.

Onwards up the Avon — Misleading information — Slow Progress — We wave to Steve — Speed advice from Watershed — Swan Neck — Hampton Ferry — Surliness of tourists — Evesham — Arrival of Watershed — Grand Tour — Nightfall — Paul!

We started again on at around 08-00, although we first woke at about 04-00 and had a peer out of the window at a gloriously pink sunrise reflecting off the water, before we decided we ought to get a few hours more sleep, but the journey still seemed slow going.

Still, we enjoyed going through Wyre Piddle, where the brewery that makes Piddle in the Hole used to be before they relocated, and it was another wonderfully warm morning. Once again, however, we found ourselves at serious odds with our guidebook. The chap had let off his continuous attacks on the Severn, by this point, but he still wasn’t happy. I don’t recall precisely the words he used, but he began talking about Wyre Piddle as a bit of the river where the riverside gardens are lined with cruisers.

“How sad it is,” he snarled, “that boats like these never seem to be used. Instead they remain on their moorings after purchase, a sad status symbol designed as a futile gesture of a failed attempt to escape the middle-class rat-race in search of something more worthwhile.”

Which, if it were true, would be, no doubt, a fair comment. As it is, however, I began to suspect the man had not, in fact, been on the Avon Ring at all. His continual barracking of the Severn for appearing monotonous, and his insistence on talking about Bredon Hill for a full five pages previously began to make me suspect that the man had simply got out an Ordnance Survey map and a set of felt-tip pens and worked out what the route must look like based on that. This would explain the theory that you can’t see anything from the Severn (because the contours would show the river banks as too high) and the continual mention of the hill (because it would look much taller than all the far more interesting but occasional glimpses of churches along the river).

It would also explain his determination to paint Wyre Piddle as a den of the despicable counter-revolutionary petite bourgeoisie. Because, let’s be clear here, what we could see of Wyre Piddle from the river was sure as Hell not middle-class rat-race territory. I dare say you could see the name on the map and think “yeah, that sounds middle class, right enough, let’s bitch about it,” but you couldn’t go through there and come to the same conclusion; it’d be like describing the Henley regatta as “a chance for the middle-class wannabes to get together and discuss little Jocinta’s prospects at the 11-plus;” it’d look fine to someone from, say, Namibia, or Patagonia, or somesuch, but anyone who’s actually gone to it wouldn’t be fooled for an instant.

Wyre Piddle is upper class as Hell, and it looks it. So I spent much of the morning trying to work out if the guidebook man hadn’t actually gone on the route at all, or if he’d just taken umbrage when someone from Piddle told him he’d like to take him out on the river, but the chap’s trainers wouldn’t look very well on the cruiser, so never mind, perhaps another time?

We departed Wyre Piddle slowly, cooing at the amazingly pretty houses along the bank, and we continued slowly thereafter. We had, you see, only had the bank to guide us, in terms of how fast we were going and that’s actually kinda hard since most people say 4 mph is “fast walking speed,” and our “fast” walking speed clocks in at somewhere around five, five-and-a-half, which probably made things feel slower than they were. By now, as well, the Avon was getting rather more twisty, which meant we could spend an hour or so going about a mile, as the crow flies. Still, it was all fairly pretty, and there was a really nice C14th bridge at one point, which was looking very forlorn and battered, in a worn sandstone sort of way, and it was, at least, still very good weather.

After a few hours, we passed Comberton Quay, which, as far as I can recall, was small, and nestled amongst some woods. There was a hull-in-progress there, with the boat painted over in the undercoat grey boats seem to be given in such circumstances, and there was also Steve – I’m afraid I’ve forgotten his boat’s name, but he was from the Gloucester & Sharpness canal which is how we recognised him – and we gave him a wave, and he waved back. We didn’t get to tell him we’d taken his advice regarding the chip-shop, but I expect he didn’t mind.

We had two interesting locks, that afternoon – the first was the last traditional lock on the Avon, and diamond shaped, so that the walls were angled to bear the brunt of the incoming water, and didn’t get damaged by it so much (LANT converted all the others during the restoration, but they left the one so people could see how it used to be done). That was actually really easy, although I’d been dreading it, but the angle of the walls made it much easer to control the boat than in a “normal” lock, because the walls took the bulk of power out of the water and made things swing about less.

We pulled up to the second lock, presently, and were in the process of setting it when the Watershed arrived and gave us a hand. A cruiser came up, too, and that meant we & Watershed went through together, again, with someone else fussing about the paddles. As we went up, the guy at their stern had a chat with Ruth, at our stern, and asked how fast we were going.

We, of course, didn’t know, because Black Prince idiot-proof their boats by providing no gauges whatsoever. We’d been going at what we guessed was a little under four, though, so we were quite surprised to be told that wasn’t likely, and that the current was stronger than we’d thought – Watershed had left Pershore half an hour after us, and had been going fairly slowly, at around three and a half mph themselves, and had caught us up after only three hours, so we obviously had some improving to do. We followed Watershed out from the lock and kept pace just behind them for a bit, which gave us a better idea of how far forward we ought to push the lever, and then, when they pulled over at some further moorings, we carried on, happy in our newfound awareness of the current, and the need to have an actual boat with a rev counter, next time.

We had an interesting moment navigating the Swan Neck, a seriously tiresome switchback of the river, the navigation of which featured a Hell of a lot of going-into-the-reeds, but otherwise we had a good run up to Evesham, and no real trouble with the remaining locks, dear me no. No, where we had trouble was with Hampton Ferry.

Hampton Ferry is, essentially, a small boat on a string, near a place called Hampton on the outskirts of Evesham. So far, so OCR English Comprehension paper. Where it becomes tiresome, however, is where your guidebook tells you that you have to blast the horn three times to get the rope lowered deep enough that you don’t snag your boat on it as you pass by, and tells you that the ferry is somewhere up ahead, and then never mentions the subject again. Nothing else mentions the subject again, either, so we ended up asking a passing kayakist where it was and, having been told “it’s just round the next corner” went round the next corner and gave three blasts of the horn to what, on closer inspection, turned out to be a pavilion belonging to a riverside rugby club.

It took another quarter of an hour for us to reach the ferry, and that included the time it took for the kayakist to come back the other way and confirm that yes, it was just around the next corner, even though the corner he now meant was a completely different one several hundred yards upstream of the rugby pitch. Eventually, however, we established the location of the ferry by spotting it bobbing about in the water, and duly gave it the necessary honks. In response, the ferry left the bank it was stationed on, and slowly jerked over the water so that it was right in our path. It didn’t hang about for more than five minutes, however, before reaching the other side and allowing the chap in it to get out and let the rope down, and then wave frantically at us to get a move on.

We’d been going fairly fast, and had then cut the engine, as instructed by the guidebooks, so as not to get the propeller caught on the rope, but the chap didn’t seem keen on that idea, so he chivvied us with his arms until we were past him, and then leapt back into the boat and went and fetched another group of tourists.

I am not, as a rule, a fan of tourists. I loathe them in Oxford, where they’re even worse than the students for hanging about Cornmarket Street and getting in the way, and they have this infuriating habit of walking along in a huddle, at about two miles an hour, and then as soon as you see a chance to get past them on the outside, they all step of the pavement at once to coo at a gargoyle twenty feet above and to the left, and shunt you out into the path of an oncoming bus. And then, after you have gathered yourself up, and rolled out of the way, and made frantic apologetic signals to the driver, and got back on the pavement, you look round and discover that they have accumulated, in the past thirteen seconds, three street artists, one grubby man selling stolen postcards and at least twelve extra party members and that you can’t go any further down the street because five of them are taking pictures of Burger King and WH Smiths, and the others are waiting for their friends to come back after they ducked into a tacky souvenir shop to buy an entirely Oxfordless lunchbox shaped like Tower Bridge and a humorous snow globe with a pile of tiny plastic mortarboards and an off-scale model of the Camera in it.

In Evesham, however, the tourists seemed especially dense, and, moreover, surly. We had, in the past week, got into the habit of saying “Hello” to people and smiling. This seems to be standard practice on the waterways, where, within three minutes, the person you’ve just been horribly gruff to could be the only chap about close enough to throw you a lifeline before you go under for the third time, and it does keep people in a cheerful mood. So we were used to people looking at the boat, and smiling and saying hello. We were less used to the Evesham approach to things, which was to sit on the bank, and stare, determinedly, in case we hit a rock and split the hull and drowned. We tried, a few times, to wave cheerfully at them, and to call out “Hello,” and “lovely weather,” but they only stared the harder, as if by wishing us well they might somehow avert the disaster that would otherwise enliven a dull day for them. I assume they were tourists, of course; for all I know they could’ve been the natural inhabitants of Evesham out for a good day hunting for corpses in the river, but I think on balance they displayed a level of grim determination in their gawpage that seems to be restricted to tourists. Unless, of course, all the tourists in Oxford are actually from Evesham, and come here on purpose, just to give genuine friendly tourists a bad name…

Tourists notwithstanding, however, we tied up at the LANT visitor moorings, on the site of the old Bell Tower cafe, which was apparently very popular during the war, and which overhung the river on concrete struts, until it was taken down, and all but one of the struts removed, and a slightly mournful plaque put in their place as the only thing left to tell the story. Still, it meant we didn’t have to venture too far towards the wrong end of town, and it left us close to the pub where we were supposed to be meeting Paul, which made it very handy for us. After a couple of hours there, the Watershed pulled in behind us, and so we wandered back along the moorings and went to say hi, and thanks for telling us the current is stronger than it looks.

The chap who’d spoken to Ruth was washing down the roof, so we spoke to him, and then he asked us if we wanted to look round inside, and introduced himself as Mike. We thought a look around a way cooler boat than ours sounded fun, so we said yes please, if it wasn’t too much trouble, and he hopped off the roof and led us down to the stern, and called to the woman inside that they had visitors.

The Watershed is a fantastic narrowboat. Mike’s basically built the whole of the interior himself, having had the hull custom made – that means, of course, that the interior is specced out the way he wants it to be, not in accordance with some generic blueprints. And it shows. Even the tiller’s to his own design, which is a nicely curving bit of ash (I think), and the stern is a semi-trad, a style which means it’s basically a low-level cabin, with seats, to keep the wind off (as opposed to the cruiser stern we had, which can fit a load of people on the back, and is cold as Hell after, e.g., three hours on the Severn with the sun behind a cloud).

Inside, they’ve got a central corridor, which is quite unusual, and some genius bits – piles and piles of gauges and switches and things, which he had fixed up by an electrician friend of his – and a nice fold-down bed, which hides away inside one cupboard, and comes out over the central corridor to rest against a bench on the other side – which means the bed is as wide as the boat, and as long as you care to make it: you can sleep so your body is running level with the boat itself, rather than across it, and your feet don’t hang out over the end the way ours always did on the Isabella Obviously we wore socks, mind you, but it’d be nice not to have to.

The bathroom is pure genius, and I love it. On the Isabella we had a bathroom, and it had a shower, and it was all just slightly cramped, as one would expect; about a yard and a half each way in total, and the shower was something like two and a half foot square, which is really cramped. On the Watershed Mike had put in screen doors which closed off the shower, on the left hand side of the corridor, and a pair which closed off the toilet on the right hand side. In the centre of the corridor was a wooden grille, beneath which was a drain. To access either toilet or shower you opened out the appropriate set of doors, leaving you standing in the middle, and then bolted the insides of the doors to slots in the opposite side of the corridor. That means you’re now in a room something like a two yards long and wider than half the boat. This is genius! And the drain in the floor means you can have this vast shower with the water running outside all of its own accord, and without it flooding the rest of the boat, because the drain itself is recessed and the water gets drawn down of its own accord. We were, as I suspect my prose is already desperately hinting, really impressed.

We’d made it down to the galley, by that point, where Jill, Mike’s partner (and, possibly, wife, but I don’t think we found that out, since it hardly seemed necessary to ask) made us some tea and gave us some fantastic chocolate cake, and we sat and had a chat at the table (which drops down and becomes another bed at night, and which is raised slightly off the floor so the seats put your head level with the side hatch, rather than a foot or so below as we had), and it was really very enjoyable. We did ask them to drop round to us later, if they fancied, although they didn’t, and I could see why; we didn’t touch them for “really fantastic boat” status – Hell, we didn’t even have a stove, let alone fantastic panelling and Italian slate (as Mike said, “if you do it up yourself, all the money you’d be spending on boat builders and designers you can put into the materials,” which almost made me wish I’d spent GCSE Resistant Materials paying attention to the course, rather than creating a fictitious Novaportian Weimar-alike state and writing the official party newspaper for it.)

So that was fantastic, and made up for Evesham being full of surly tourists, and it was nice to actually see inside the boat, since we’d kept seeing them all the way up from Tewkesbury…

We got a decent night’s sleep, apart from the Swans, and Ruth having yet another dream at three in the morning in which she woke up, elbowed me in the ribs and said “Get up! We have to tie the boat up!” and kept insisting that we were drifting away, which we patently weren’t. She got out of the bed and was pulling on clothes to go and tie things on before she properly woke up, and then she got very sheepish and said sorry and fell asleep again.

In the morning, however, (at which time we were still tied up) we set out to find a newsagents, to re-supply with bacon, milk, and that week’s Guardian. We had to enlist the help of three old ladies to do that, but, of course, they knew exactly where one was, and warned us it was “a long way,” and we thanked them and set off to find it. It wasn’t, as it turned out, too far, although we were probably capable of a greater turn of speed than they were, and it was up a bit of a hill, but it kitted us out with all we went for, and, inexplicably, three bottles of hobgoblin as well, although we’d no intention of getting any before we saw it, and we were able to go and drop that off at the boat before we wandered back along the road to the pub where we’d planned to meet Paul.

The pub itself was resolutely shut, but, that very morning, they’d opened, for the first time, a coffee shop next in an annexe of it and there, sipping coffee and getting suspicious looks from the staff, (who obviously hadn’t considered the possibility of someone arriving and wanting coffee an hour after they first said coffee was on offer) was Paul.

UANT takes charge — Irrational habits of middle initials — Paul, a speed-freak in our midst — We stock up on water — Misadventures of the Stern Rope — To the rescue, with boathook and dragon-pole — Bidford

We made Paul work, now we’d got him, and set him to spy out the water point we thought was just ahead of us. We cast off with no trouble at all (we were, by this point, getting very good at starting things up, taking the ropes off and then having someone push the nose of the boat out into the water before leaping daringly aboard, so we actually got under weigh [I assume it’s under weigh, not under way; weigh is, as far as I know, that motion which keeps the boat going forwards and stops it floating uselessly round with the current, but I haven’t actually checked] with no trouble at all).

We didn’t have much luck finding the water point, however, and for this I blame Paul who, rather than actually scanning the bank in search of something which might resemble a water point, was busily chucking bits of bread at passing Swans, evidently under the impression that they’d take the trouble to thank him. They didn’t, of course, but he was new to the waters, and could not, therefore, be reasonably expected to know what devious demons the inland waterfowl of England really are. They weren’t even very interested in the bread, as it happened; certainly they never ate any of it, but that didn’t stop them cooing at him and getting him to chuck it towards them anyway. I thought it unduly harsh of them to toy with the man’s innocence so, and I would’ve told them so, but we had to get through a bridge around that time, and I didn’t fancy having to fool about on the side whilst going under a bridge and trying to get the boathook at the same time, so I let it pass and tried to force my mind onto nobler things.

Presently, we encountered the lock at which the Lower Avon cedes its name to the Upper Avon, and it was here that UANT, the Upper Avon Navigation Trust took over charge of the waterway and began to name locks after the benefactors who donated money to make the Avon naviagable again in the 1950s, rather than naming them after the place in which they were located. All this means, however, is that I’m now going to get a bit vague about where we are – when I mention a lock, there’s a good chance it’s got a name like George Billington lock, or EH Cadbury lock, or Anonymous lock, or something, but I doubt I can remember what order they come in, except that the last lock in Stratford is the Colin P. Witter lock, and I only remember that because it’s got that strange habit of mixing Christian names with middle initials, which I’ve never really understood.

I appreciate that I have a reasonably long name, but I can’t say I’m a fan of the theory that I can’t call myself either J.A. Trevor-Allen or John Aneurin Trevor-Allen; John A. Trevor – Allen just makes it sound rather like I can’t make up my mind which style I want to go for, which I’m sure must be fine for some people but wouldn’t suit me at all; I’d far rather be thought of as the sort of person that can make sage and considered decisions than the sort that sits there and can’t work out how I want my name to look when I write it down. Actually, of course, I’m the sort of person that takes up a random bundle of initials that gets thrown at me by a games master one rainy afternoon and then proceeds to go around being called that for the next nine years, but at least I do it with internal consistency. And, anyway, the alternative to “JTA” was the one Mr. North who taught me geography came up with when he saw me swing the my hockey stick to tackle some swine in Darwin in year ten, and I don’t think introducing myself as “John ‘Axe-murderer’ Trevor-Allen” would work in the average social context.

Since, however, there is no lock named after me on the Upper Avon, I imagine the whole thing can be ignored until I turn over a new leaf and become some famous general, or something, and they want to put up an enormous statue to me in Hyde Park or somewhere, and I confuse them by asking them to make the plaque out to J. Aneurin Trevor-A.

Anyway, regardless of what the lock was actually called, we got through it with no trouble, and with the UANT people doing all the legwork, and we came out onto the Upper Avon and each had a jaffa cake to celebrate. Then we showed Paul roughly how things worked, and asked if he’d like to have a go, and then we spent the next three days trying to get him to slow down. His argument was “if we go faster, steering is easier,” which is true insofar as steering is faster. The downside is, so is the speed at which obstacles materialise, and it’s harder to get round things neatly when you’ve got a packet of momentum swinging you merrily into them. Fortunately the river was still nice and wide, however, so aside from his habit of steering us into as many trees as overhung the bank, we didn’t actually damage anything.

Three miles and twenty minutes later, or so it seemed, we found a new water point, and filled up there whilst watching a family from another boat have a picnic by the side of the lock. Included in the family group were a small boy and a slightly smaller girl, and they spent the entire time we were there tormenting one another: most interesting was the occasion when the boy fell over and hurt himself, and then cried, at increasing volumes until someone finally looked at him and asked him to be quiet, and tried to blame the girl. Three minutes later, he chased her in a game of tig, shoved her squarely in the shoulder blades and then, as she lay crying on the ground, pulled her sock down by three inches and said “look, it wasn’t me, she tripped over her sock!” and then went into a sulk when nobody believed him. It was an interesting example of psychology, especially for me because as I watched it I couldn’t help thinking that, had I been doing that, I should have pulled the sock down beforehand, thus giving me time to run over and make a fuss and hope she was OK. I wasn’t doing any such thing, of course, because my sister was firstly not there, and secondly a good deal less annoying than she used to be, but it did make me feel momentarily nostalgic for happier days. Happier for me, at least; I was the one who didn’t get my socks sabotaged.

After we’d got the water we got up to the next lock, and Paul decided he was going to do the paddles and things and pass the ropes around the bollards at the top, and Ruth & I could keep the ropes taught and stop the boat bouncing around with the current when the paddles were open. Accordingly, I headed up to the bow, and threw Paul the rope and he looped it round the bollard and passed it down and I stood there and kept it taught as per the plan.

At the stern, however, things didn’t go so well. The first time Ruth threw Paul the rope, he didn’t catch it, and it fell in the water. The second time she threw it, it was soaking wet and heavy, so Paul even more didn’t catch it and it fell back into the lock once more. The third time Ruth threw it, the loop that was round the peg and holding the back end of the rope had got bored of being the only bit that was still dry, and had slipped itself off the peg, so when Ruth threw it and Paul failed to catch it yet again the whole rope vanished beneath the surface of the water, and the pair of them went into a panic. After I’d got them to explain what happened, I tied my rope on, got onto the roof and went and gave Ruth the boathook so she could lie down flat on the floor and desperately poke about just in case she could hook the rope and get it back up. By this time, however, the stern had drifted out across the lock, and the hook wasn’t long enough to get back, so I had to catch hold of the dragon-pole and brace that against the far wall of the lock in order to get the boat back to where it needed to be. By some miracle we managed to get the damn thing back onboard and hooked back on, and this time I passed it up to Paul whilst still on the roof, and we managed to get on our way.

We didn’t have any further mishaps, after that, and we’d evidently transferred the curse because when we got to Bidford-on-Avon we found another narrowboat wedged firmly under the central arch of the bridge, which they’d evidently attempted to navigate in the face of all the one-way arrows pointing to the leftmost arch as they went downstream. As a result, they’d run aground (the risk of which, presumably, is why the arrows pointed out the safe arch to go through) and lots of people on the bridge were leaning over and peering at them, to see what they’d do next.

We didn’t join in the celebration of their misfortune, however, because we had shopping to do, so we wandered along until we found a strange little supermarket called Budgeons, of which we’d never heard, and stocked up on supplies there ahead of the planned Sunday lunch the next day. We had a curry in the evening, which wasn’t bad, and then we watched Orgazmo, which remains very silly, and went to bed.

Further misadventures of the Stern Rope — Stern Advice from Black Prince — Further locks, with greater assistance — Sage Advice from UANT — More tourists — Stratford-Upon-Avon — Arrival of relatives — Sunday lunch

There was another lock, shortly after Bidford, and it was the first one we’d let Paul steer us into. A cruiser was there ahead of us, so we needed to let them get things ready and go through, and, to that end, we went to moor up at the side, where there was a little cement quay with iron bollards and a nice flat iron-hemmed edge for the very purpose. Ruth leapt off the front with the bow rope, and I got the stern rope and stepped off at the back, and just as I did so I felt a tug and looked back and saw the wretched thing had caught itself in a fork of the iron edging on the moorings which had rusted away and peeled up slightly, creating a gap between two forks of metal into which the rope had just passed itself. I turned to Paul to ask him to back it up a bit, but we were still going forwards rather faster than I’d realised and I hadn’t turned halfway round when there was a horribly loud crunching noise, and a sudden jerk that nearly pitched me into the water and I turned back to see the wretched rope had sliced itself through about a foot from the end, and let the blasted end of the boat swing out across the channel again.

We got Paul back by throwing him the other end of the rope and me hauling things back in, and then we rang Black Prince to ask what to do (because, oddly, they’d not bothered to give us a spare rope, apart from the one which had an anchor chained to it at one end, and the boat chained to it at the other and which, for all Paul’s insistent declamations of “use that one, then,” would not have been useful for throwing to one another at locks and moorings.

By now, of course, it was the Sunday of the Easter Bank Holiday, and the response from Black Prince went something like “How much rope have you got left? Most of it? And the other end? Can you tie a knot in it? Well, tie it onto the boat then, I don’t want to send someone out on a Bank Holiday. Tie the long bit onto the boat, and if you still need a new rope on Tuesday, give us a call then. Goodbye.”

So we tied it back onto the boat. It did us pretty well, after that, except on those occasions where the bank we wanted to moor to was on the opposite side of the canal to the peg we’d tied the rope to, but we didn’t give it another chance, really, so that’s not surprising. I expect, if we’d’ve let it, the next part of it’s subversive plan would’ve been to tangle itself round the propeller, or tie our rudder to the sluice controls at a weir, so it’s fortunate we curbed it when we did, or I imagine we’d’ve all woken up in the middle of the night and found ourselves being slowly strangled by the wretched thing. As it was, it had to be satisfied with having its end cut off, and after that it mostly did as it was told.

We fared better at the rest of the locks, however, although we did have to deal with a group of people with cruisers who kept coming into the locks with us. That wasn’t entirely a problem except, of course, that river cruisers are spiffy wee boats made entirely out of fibreglass, and wouldn’t, therefore, bear up well to getting dinked by a steel narrowboat. Preventing that did get needlessly hard at one point, when a woman from the cruisers brought four paddles up on her side, all in one go, and our boat went crazy, and tried to climb out of the lock and kill things, but we more or less managed to hold it, with, in my case, the help of some judicious cursing.

We lost them, after that, which is probably a good thing, because holding twenty tons with a rope, I found, burns your hands up pretty badly. We did, at least, find out where the problem came from at a later lock, where a UANT volunteer, out for a Bank Holiday’s lending a hand, explained that when there’s one boat in a river lock you should open the paddles on the same side as that boat, so the water bounces off the centre of the opposite wall, and doesn’t get in between the boat and the wall and cause a nuisance. When there’s two boats, you open both sets of paddles equally, and that sends the water down the middle. By that time, of course, the advice was of limited value, because we hadn’t got many river locks left to go, but it was still nice to know.

We could tell when we were getting into Stratford because everyone was suddenly trying to take photos of us, and (after considerable waiting) we made it into the Colin P. Witter lock, the last before we pulled over. We went through with another boat, and the guy from that got a kid to help him with the paddles (which I liked, because someone did that with me at Norbury Junction, once, and I really enjoyed it, having not spent the last three days doing hundreds and hundreds of locks) and some tourists were generally tiresome and got in the way (which was predictable).

We pulled over just downstream of the old theatre, by the bowling club, and were just tying up for the next two days when my mother and sister arrived (we’d contrived to shove them in a bed and breakfast over on the other side of town.

Ruth & Paul stayed to straighten things up on the boat a bit, & to get the dinner on, & the rest of us went for a scout around town to discover the Courtyard theatre (for the record, you start outside the Swan, with your back to the river, and the theatre to your left and take a left turn down the road, keeping the river on your left and carry on until you see it on the right; I think it’s about five or ten minutes walk, depending on how fast you are) and the restaurant we were going to the next day, and then to the B&B to get Easter Eggs.

We got back to the boat to discover Ruth & Paul had set up an Easter Egg hunt, would you believe, so we did that (it didn’t take too long, since it was on a fairly small boat, but it was still rather fun in a silly way, and everyone seemed to enjoy it, even when Harriet actually found her eggs) and then we had a Sunday lunch which was astonishingly good, especially since the kitchen was, as I suspect I may’ve mentioned, not really designed so much for cooking in as for looking really glossy in the brochures.

It all went very well, so we settled in for the evening, happy in the knowledge that we were now spared going anywhere for the next day, and we could just hang around Stratford instead.

Pleasant day of little activity — I become 22 — Evening meal — King Lear — An unexpected party

The next day was Monday the 9th of April, and we did really very little, which was very pleasant. We did collect the tickets for the theatre, and we stocked up on such supplies as we were running low on, and had a bit of a wander around Stratford (or, at least, those bits we could get round without having to wade through swathes of Shakespeare-land tourists still clutching their tacky models of the Camera), and generally enjoyed the weather.

By this point, somehow, I’d contrived to turn 22, although it didn’t feel any different to being 21. Mid you, turning 21 didn’t feel any different to being 20, and so on back to the age of about ten or so (and, probably, if only I could remember, much further back than that) so I’ve long since got out of the habit of being remotely excited by birthdays, although they do present me with the chance to be given stuff, which is always nice (I’m a terrible consumerist – or, of course, a very good one, depending on your point of view – so I like pretty much anything that involves people giving me cool stuff for free). So that was pretty damn cool; I got a handy haul of cash (which I seem to have spent on DVDs, books & imported tasty Mountain Dew), and some rocking cuff-links from Ruth which I’ve wanted for ages and a load of stuff from Paul (or, rather, an actual present that arrived later & a second one because the first didn’t arrive in time for him to bring it) & a book of recollections of people that were in the Great War, so that was indeed spiffy.

We had a very nice meal at a place called the Vintner in the late afternoon, which is a really nice restaurant, and pretty handy for the theatres, & then we headed on over to the Courtyard, which is a superb new theatre done properly (which is to say, in the round) and which means even though it’s vast and seats something like a thousand people you’re never actually very far from the stage.

We saw King Lear, principally because that was what was on, in spite of the fact it’s a miserable bloody thing (I’m not, by and large, a fan of Shakespeare tragedies, tending to think, on limited grounds, that Webster could do them rather better), but it was really very good. They seem, at the moment, to be doing a whole collection of plays with the one company of actors, with the predictable but interesting result that they all work amazingly well together. Ruth, of course, was in fits of glee at the lighting rig, which was pretty damn impressive, but even she ended up actually watching what was going on on stage, which does rather suggest it was excellent, even without me taking the words to say so, although, as it happens, it was. Even Sylvester McCoy was good (which surprised me, because all I knew about him was that he was likely to go down in history as “man who was famous for having killed off Dr. Who before Russell T. Davis had a go and killed it much damn harder by using increasingly ludicrous plots, the same enemies over and over and a blind insistence on setting everything on Earth even when there’s no plots left”), and, it turns out, can play the Spoons. O, and Ian McKellen unexpectedly took his trousers off whilst on the heath. One minute we’re sat there watching Lear going mad and admiring the spiffy rain machine, next minute the man’s standing there with no underpants on and his trousers round his ankles. That was a surprise.

Anyway, that was, as I’ve said, amazingly good, & my mother & Ruth & I headed back to the boat alone, afterwards, because Paul & Harriet had contrived to get lost and had gone on back to the boat ahead of us.

It transpired, when we finally got back, after much walking slowly and complaining about painful feet, that they’d snuck off to lay on a surprise party, which was unnecessarily sweet of them, and probably far more trouble than I deserved. I don’t, as a rule, cope well with surprise things; I always end up feeling guilty that people have gone and put themselves out just for me, but happily they all seemed to enjoy it as well, so that wasn’t as bad as it might’ve been if they’d had a thoroughly rotten time of it.

We ended up having a rather late night as a result, however, & Ruth got into rather a panic because she suddenly realised we had an awfully long way still to go, and only four days to do it in. As a result, we resolved to set off fairly early the next day, and to get on as far as we could before nightfall.

Exit the basin — Wot? No fuel? — Many partings — Ruthlessly Germanic water — Aqueduct Attack! — Ah! Fuel! — Speedy, speedy like a fox — Dick’s lane

Accordingly, we got up early the next morning and had breakfast and were joined by my mother & sister and then set off. We got off the Avon and into Stratford basin, OK, and, more impressively, out of it through the narrow bridge that links it to the Stratford Canal and the excessively windy stretch of canal that leads out of Stratford. Harriet had a good time helping with the locks, which was good because Paul kept saying “Wow, this is really tiny, how’s the boat meant to fit in?” having not actually been through a proper lock since he joined up with us, and thus being far too used to the massive ones we kept getting on the river.

We’d been told by Black Prince that’d we’d need to fill up with fuel at some point in the second week, and, not having a gauge of any sort, we had to guess when this would be. Accordingly, we stopped at the hire base just outside Stratford and tied onto some of their boats whilst I hopped out and went to ask if they could sort us out. Unhelpfully, however, they had no fuel. At all. Specifically, they’d totally run out of diesel, even for their own boats, having forgotten the Bank Holiday Monday would affect their deliveries, so they were obliged to wish us well and send us off without any.

That threw us into a bit of a panic, so I dug out Opera on my phone, and got a number for Anglo Welsh bookings, and phoned them. Predictably (for anyone whose heard me start a phone conversation with someone I don’t know since summer 2005) the conversation began “Hello, I’m sorry to bother you, but…”, with the specific “but” in this case being “I’m trying to get hold of your base at Wootton Wawen, do you have their number?”

They did have their number, happily, and I gave them a ring and they said we had to be there by 1645 if we wanted to get filled up. That was a challenge, but they did, at least, have plenty much fuel, so we got ready to strike off. We pulled over under a bridge, where the towpath came further out, therefore, and pointed my family in the direction of the town centre & said goodbye to them and wished them a safe trip, and then we were off, and we pulled out the map and discussed the plan.

Ruth, still deeply concerned about the time pressure we were now under had wanted to be at least past Wootton Wawen by nightfall, and would really like to get to Preston Bagot, if we could. Kingswood, she said, would be fantastic, but she realised it was a ridiculously long way away and we probably couldn’t make it. Nevertheless, Paul & I agreed that as long as she steered the boat, we’d push on as far as we could until it got dark, and then pull over when we could go no further.

We still needed to re-supply with water, however, and so we pulled ourselves over at the first available point, which we came to at 10:45. We moored rapidly and were secure by 10:47. And, mindful of the need to keep moving, I did the only sensible thing, and Took Charge.

First I got Ruth to put the kettle on, and fill up our 8 litre reserve in plastic bottles, and I set Paul to work untangling the water pipe and getting the lid of the tank, and I ran over to the tap and unlocked it and got the end of the hose from Paul and fixed it on and got the tap going and we started filling with water at 10:49, whilst Ruth, having sorted the reserve, grabbed the rubbish and went and threw it in the bin.

“We leave at eleven!” I shouted “Regardless of anything else. We keep moving, this water will tide us over, we can fill her properly whilst we’re getting petrol!”

I was, by this point, in the sort of mood that we needs in First Great Western today: I had said we would leave at eleven and I was damn well going to make sure that we did leave at eleven.

At 10:58, therefore I told Ruth to go and untie the stern, and I had Paul get over there and take the mooring peg from her, and Ruth held the stern rope in and Paul stowed the peg and unhitched the bow, and held that in. At 10:59 I cut the water, and unscrewed the hose and ran back and shoved it back in the locker, and I sent Paul down to Ruth and took the rope from him, and Ruth took the rope from Paul and fired up the engine and Paul got on at the back as I shoved the nose out into midstream and jumped onto the front and we were away bang on the stroke of 11.

And just as I was crowing about the brilliant Germanic efficiency with which we had managed to get just enough water to keep us going until we were stopped for petrol and couldn’t go anywhere anyway we looked back and saw I’d failed to close the door on the water point. I was debating whether or not it was wise to leap off and just get back on at the next bridge, but we were saved by some cyclists who were having a rest on the bank and who we got to go and lock it up for us.

So not, perhaps, ruthless Germanic efficiency. But it probably counted as ruthless Austrian efficiency, and that’s almost as good.

We did our best, therefore, in spite of the terrible narrowness that afflicts the bridges of the lower Stratford Canal, and, from where I was, in the teeth of some creaking knees that chose to entirely disregard the four co-cadamol I pointedly fed them throughout the course of the day and ached like anything just to spite me. Despite that, things went very well and we only really had a crisis when we got to the Edstone aqueduct, which made Ruth feel deeply unsafe since, from the top, it looks uncannily like you’re floating on three inches of water in a little metal gutter, with a vast drop straight down beneath you, and a howling crosswind ready to tip you and the boat right off the side and onto the railway line below.

It was unfortunate that Paul had gone on ahead to sort out a lock, because it meant that when Ruth went inside to hide, I got left with the tiller, which would have been alright, but for the wind, which kept catching us side on and bashing the hull against the iron, which panicked Ruth rather more when she couldn’t see outside because she thought that was us rolling over the side.

Fortunately, however, it wasn’t. Still more fortunately, we made very good time and got filled up at Wootton Wawen, and forced ourselves on towards Preston Bagot. We didn’t stop their either, pushing on as far as we could before nightfall, and passing a collection of ostriches in the lock-keeper’s cottage garden just below the M42 around 19:00. Shortly after that, we did stop, at the bridge under Dick’s Lane, on the outskirts of Kingswood. From being more or less half way round that morning we now had about a quarter of the ring left to do, and three days to do it in. Even including the Tardebigge flight, we thought, it was unlikely that we would now fail to make it round.

Except, of course, for the Interdict.

Onwards! — Heave away, haul away — Halted by the Interdict — Birmingham, and other pestilential debris — Through the Tunnel — Tardebigge Top Lock

We pushed on once again, the morning, through some decent flights of locks which we coped with fairly well (you gain a great advantage at river locks if you’re fortunate enough to have two people spare to help them. At canal locks that advantage increases, because they’re smaller, and fill faster, and you can use both people to fiddle with the gates and winding gear, because you don’t need to fool about stopping the boat drifting sideways into the extra space you get on the river) and we made, once more, amazingly good progress.

We also encountered, for the first time, lift bridges, which were interesting. Death on the Waters presented lift bridges as fascinating things, all pulling on counterweights and sitting on crossbars to ensure you didn’t guillotine a boat by accident. In actual fact they’ve been sanitised a bit, recently, and you just turn the windlass on a hydraulic thing and that does all the legwork for you. It’s probably safer, but it doesn’t half make things dull.

Things got livened up after one of the two we met that morning, however, when we pulled over to have a cup of tea and some guys came belting up behind us at a good deal more than 4mph, and created enough wash that the peg to which we’d tied the stern rope (of course) came out and set us adrift. We had an interesting time sorting things out, after that, and I wasn’t much use because I’d contrived to get my hand in a loop of the rope when I jumped off to moor us up at the front and I’d got a colossal rope burn on the back of it, which kept catching itself on things and hurting like mad.

We again made good progress, but we were obliged to stop at Yardley, just beyond Major’s Green, on the outskirts of Birmingham. Black Prince had given us a navigational chart of the Avon Ring, wrapped up in cellophane, and all over the bit of it that represented Birmingham they’d drawn enormous ugly red crosses. “Don’t stop there,” they’d told us, “We can’t get the insurance.” And, since we couldn’t go at night, and there wasn’t enough day left for us to get all the way through Birmingham either to the other side or to the Neutral Zone that is the Gas Street Basin, aka “the regenerated bit,” we had to stick where we were, and shove off to the pub and play cards.

Once there was sufficient light in the sky to keep the worst of Birmingham either at home, at work, or out of sight of the police, however, we pushed on with determination: it was now Thursday morning and we had to be back at Stoke Prior by 09:00 on Saturday. We got through the final lift bridge, which was by far the most exiting of the lot – you had to insert a key, and turn it to arm the firing buttons, and then you had to push the “open” button and it set off flashing warning lights on the road, and brought down two barriers and then took the bridge up, and then you reversed the procedure to bring the bridge back down again).

The navigation of Birmingham, I have to admit, was less pleasant than other bits of our trip, since the canal got gloomy. Frequently we found bits of the blackened trees, ranged along the banks of the cuttings in gnarled and serried ranks, which had rotted free of their trunks and fallen softly into the dark embraces of the canal, and these branches kept catching us under the bow, and needing to be dragged free with the boathook before the splashing of the wash they created roused, unbidden from the depths, the kraken-threat of rusting largertins, stagnant mattresses or fish-hewn corpses of unwary swimmers.

Once, we saw an arm-chair float by, reclining on the surface of the waters with its legs in the air and its cushion lost to the mists of time, and frequently I found myself spearing branches from beneath the hull and casting them to damnation on the farther bank, only to discover a second wave barely a foot beyond us and still advancing.

At length, however, we passed the final lock of the canal; an old guillotine stop-lock designed to prevent water from the Birmingham navigations being stolen away by the Stratford company, and which I took a distinct liking too, having once thought it a great treat to be taken down to Hadley castle and shown the decaying oaken guillotine locks there, left over from the days when the Newport branch of the Shropshire Union made its way to link Shrewsbury with the industrial heartlands.

We passed, then, back onto the Worcester & Birmingham canal which we had parted with at Diglis, and made our way towards our next major challenge, the Wast Hill tunnel. After our dubious success with the Dunhampstead Tunnel in the first week (we got stuck on the wrong side, and contrived to drag a lump of brick along with us on our way out) we weren’t feeling entirely confident, and, despite some success in navigating the far shorter Brandwood tunnel beforehand, we became more concerned, as we entered Wast Hill, and saw, away in the distance, the tiny pinprick of light that heralded an oncoming boat. We were still not keen on having to pass in such a confined and lightless place. Our concerns only grew when, after five minutes, the light was no bigger and, five minutes after that, it dawned on us that the tiny speck we had taken for an oncoming headlamp was, in fact, the exit. We spent forty-five minutes in that tunnel, and reckoned that was making good time.

Still, it raised our spirits ahead of the final Shortwood tunnel, which seemed the easiest thing in the world to get through after Wast Hill, and we therefore pushed on through to the top of the Tardebigge flight, taking ourselves through the 14-foot Top Lock before mooring up, ready for a final grand push against the flight itself in the morning.

Descent — Drainage — Elsa (read: Jonah) — Watershed again! — Housekeeping — Gastro pub — Mistaken for yobbos — Farewell, farewell — The Black Prince — Bromsgrove Station — The Ladybird — The End

We started off early, before even eight o’ clock, with the fixed intent of getting through Tardebigge as quickly as we could, and before any other boats came along and made a nuisance of themselves by wanting to get through some of the locks in the opposite direction.

One boat went through ahead of us, and that was Elsa, another Black Prince. We did three locks with no problem at all, and then had to hang about whilst Elsa shifted herself. They were having trouble, they said, because there wasn’t enough water in one of the basins. They got through, though, and then proceeded to get stuck in the next basin as well. I wandered back to the previous lock, intending to fill it once and empty it, thus giving us all an extra lock-full to deal with, but they didn’t like that plan, so they just brought up all the paddles they could find and drained two basins by about a foot and a half of water all round.

I wasn’t there for this bit, of course; I’d filled my lock up, and had been about to empty it when I saw another boat coming down through the lock above, and it didn’t seem worth emptying the one I’d just filled when they could come down with it anyway, so I ran back to explain to them why it was full, and that I’d wait and then give them a hand with it.

Ruth, meanwhile, was attempting to explain to the retarded buffoons in the Elsa that, by draining all the water out of the canal, they were causing no end of trouble for everybody else. “Well,” intoned the man, in (I should imagine) the confident tones of one who lacks the requisite intelligence to lack anything as human as self-doubt, “that’s their problem, isn’t it?” and the proceeded to shove their nasty little barge on its nasty little way. I positively loathe people like that. I know it’s hardly their own fault that they’re too dense to consider other people, and really we ought to be doing more to train young parents not to drop their offspring on their heads at the earliest opportunity, but I can’t help but despise them in spite of myself; I think it’s the manner in which they contrive to imply that it’s somehow everyone else’s fault that they (the unpleasant people) have caused trouble for everyone else – it suggests deliberate malice to me, in spite of common sense dictating that it must just be a brain deficiency, and I find myself wishing every kind of unpleasantness on them and all their friends and relations. I can’t imagine that it ever does any good, however, except to make them more surly and insulting.

Ruth contrived to communicate the problem to me whilst I rang her to explain I was waiting for the next boat to come down (the boat that is, whose problem it would apparently be that the skipper of the Elsa had parents too dim to use contraception). That boat, as it happened, was, once again, our old friend the Watershed, and so we endeavoured to nurse them down the next lock whilst we tried to unstick ourselves from the basin in which we’d just been left stranded by the Elsa (now, of course, long out of sight, and probably not in the least bit stricken by the terminal embarrassing impotence problem I was, at that time, wishing on all them and theirs).

We got unstuck, after about an hour, and were obliged to leave Watershed after Jill assured us that Mike would be able to sort it out, and that they shouldn’t have to wait long before someone else came down and brought enough water to get them floating again. We did the rest of the flight with very little trouble, except, of course, that by the time we’d got towards the bottom there was so much excess water sloshing about in the lower reaches, rather than being up at the top, that it became enormously difficult to operate the up paddles, and it kept flowing over the tops of the gates, but I consoled myself with the hope someone on the Elsa had tried to turn a windlass and given themselves sciatica, and we moved on.

We decided not to stop for lunch, after Tardebigge and instead pushed on through the first few locks of the Stoke flight, which ends just below the Black Prince base. Once we were confident that we only had another mile or so to go before Stoke Prior, however, we pulled over and promptly grounded ourselves one last time, for old time’s sake. We ignored that, for a bit, but presently the fact the right-hand side of the boat was still in the water caused us to list at something in the region of 45 degrees, and we were obliged to get out, push ourselves free, and moor up a little lower down, where the bank shelved rather more steeply.

We tidied everything up, and washed down the outside of the boat (that is to say, I got out and fooled around with a mop and a bucket to try and clean some of the mud and masonry off the outside, and then went round to sponge and dry the windows clean afterwards, whilst a cheery old man on the towpath told me I’d missed a bit and gave me 9/10 “for effort”) and tidied up on the inside, and started packing.

We gave all that up, around 19:00, and walked back to the pub we’d seen at the last bridge. It turned out to be an awfully poncy little place, but they found us a table anyway, and we had a very nice waitress who was enormous fun and confided in us that all the staff had had to go to a wine-tasting training day, which tells you all you need to know about the joint. She also, however, told us that she’d really enjoyed it, because you were “supposed to spit it out, but I thought ‘why waste it?’,” which tells you all you need to know about why it’s never worth trying to make essentially cheerful people conform to your high Gastro-pub ideals.

We knocked back a bottle of champagne, whilst we were there, however, and generally enjoyed ourselves, and on the way out we saw the Watershed had moored up opposite the pub and thought we’d go over and just quickly say goodbye.

I knocked on the hull, but it didn’t seem to achieve much; through the window we saw Jill turn round and look puzzled, but that was all we managed, so I clambered onto the bow and knocked on the door, instead. This time she registered that there was someone there, and came cautiously forward and switched on the main lights and peered out. Suddenly her eyes got awfully wide and she shouted “O! It’s you!” and jabbed a finger at the glass, and opened the door up. She’d thought we were drunken yobbos, the first time she heard someone banging on the boat, she said, but then she recognised us.

So we said that was fine, and we weren’t really yobbos, and we thought we’d just pop round and say hello before we went back to the Isabella and headed off home the next day. Very kindly, however, she insisted on inviting us in, so we accepted and she got the kettle on, and dug up Mike and gave us tea.

Mike showed us some photos of the Watershed actually being built, and transported on a huge lorry thing that came into two parts, and then they told us about the awful time they’d had trying to get afloat again later – their rudder had come out of it’s socket on account of the lack of water and the mud, and poor Mike had had to get into swimming gear and swim about in the lock trying to force the pin back in, which sounded a thoroughly unpleasant job to have to go through. We had a wonderful hour or so generally nattering with them, though, and they gave us some more cake, which was fantastic and then, inevitably, we realised that we really did have to go.

So we returned, one last time, to the Isabella, and proceeded to play cards and get horribly drunk trying to finish up the gin and, in Paul’s lunatic case, the Absinthe as well. We managed, too, with the result that Paul had a terrible hangover the next morning (I was fine, though, which suggests the champagne had worn off under the constant bombardment of gin).

Hangover or not, however, we were constrained to make an early start and clear everything out, and get the last lock done so we could go and return our boat to Black Prince. We made it to the base at around 08:50, and a chap came aboard to steer us in so we could moor her up properly (he didn’t want to come aboard, of course, but we couldn’t get the boat to turn at all, so he had to, and he discovered that we’d somehow, in the last half hour, managed to get a huge bundle of thick orange rope tied round the prop, which stopped us being able to steer. He had to cut it off with my penknife in the end, and apologised for telling us it was really easy to steer and why did he have to come and help, which I thought was big of him, considering).

They took Isabella off us, at that point, and I suddenly realised that actually, in spite of everything that had contrived to go wrong and be horribly stressful, I’d actually really enjoyed myself, and I didn’t want to have to go home. It couldn’t be helped by then, however, so we got our stuff together, signed the boat back in and then I made a taxi call to find someone to get us to the station in Bromsgrove.

Unexpectedly, Bromsgrove Station turned out to be slightly less interesting that Dovey Junction, with worse views and even less to do. And it was only just gone ten, and our trains weren’t for another five hours. We turned ourselves around, therefore, gathered up the considerable amount of luggage with which we were surrounded, and went and sat on a bench by the war memorial, and waited, in the best traditions of the English on Holiday, for 11 o’ clock to happen, and the pub to open.

As soon as the doors were unlocked, we made our way inside and discovered that the pub – the Ladybird, it was called, was amazingly nice. In the unlikely event that you end up stuck in Bromsgrove for a couple of hours and you’re near the station, I’d really recommend it, it’s only about a hundred yards up the road from the station, and it does really good food and some OK ales, if you fancy.

We, of course, did not particularly fancy, and stuck chiefly to the soft drinks and to cups of coffee, and played four and a half pleasant hours worth of cards, with a break for lunch around one. It was good fun, and it kept us off the streets and it extended the fast-slipping feeling of Being On Holiday for a little while longer, so it’s hard for me not to think fondly of it.

Of course, it couldn’t last, but it was a delightful reprieve whilst it did and then we had to return to the station and there we waited for the delayed train to Birmingham to arrive, which it did, in sweltering heat, and so we parted from Paul, and made our way to our platform, and the Oxford train.

We got a taxi from Didcot back to Wallingford, and I loathed it. Cornering at 35 miles an hour felt alien, somehow, and uncomfortable, and I didn’t enjoy the heat when there was no wind coming off the water to take the edge off things. But we settled more or less back into the usual groove of everyday working life, and things aren’t too bad, now we’re back. And, once or twice, we see a narrowboat on the Thames, as we cross it in our morning commuter bus and we sigh fondly, and exchange covert glances which, though blank to the uninitiated, strongly imply that we shan’t be fooling about on dry land indefinitely, providing we can help it.

The End.

Wow, if you made it this far by actually reading then I am amazingly impressed. If you want to leave a comment (to, eg, say how long it is and how cool you are for reading so much stuff, then you may as well do so, er… Here. Seems as good a place as any.