Monday, 20 August 2012

Slow Boat Up the Severn

(Stourport Ring - Week One - 30th June to 6th July)

We seem to have got into a habit of getting a bigger boat each year....although nb 'Silver Dove' is supposed to be the same class as last year's nb 'Lady Carol', she's actually three feet longer. No idea why! There is a bit more at the stern for sitting, which pleased Mum, and more at the front too, which was nice.

There are a few other differences in fit-out; for one, she's the mirror layout, and secondly – she doesn't have a hatch, which is a little bit of a shame! However, given the weather, it would probably have been closed most of the time!
For it has been wet...
Exceedingly wet.
A month or so ago, there were closures of canals to conserve water. When we picked up 'Dove', the man at Tardebigge Wharf said that the Severn had been closed to traffic because of flooding. Several boats that had gone out on week-long trips had gone down to Worcester and had then just come back, unable to complete the Stourport Ring. With a fortnight, we stood a better chance of being able to wait until conditions improved. Well, we hoped so!

Going clockwise, the trip starts with a tunnel, and the Tardebigge Locks – all 29 of them. Not exactly an enticing prospect for the first evening, so with fingers crossed we aimed for a spot just downstream of the Top Lock for an overnight mooring. One soggy tunnel and our first lock later, and we found a spot with no trouble at all. Which struck me as a little odd, unless everyone else had just given up on going up the river...

It took us five hours to get down the Tardebigge, refining our locking technique and making sure my steering was up to scratch (or not-scratch, rather), and a late lunch was followed by the 6 Stoke Locks, and 6 Astwood Locks.

Six miles, 41 locks, and we are 290 feet lower than last night! Fortunately, a lot of the locks were set in our favour, so we didn't have to do a lot of waiting for them to fill. The scenery is rural, fields, trees, sheep and cows, a distant hilltop manor house and regular chiffchaffs calling from the trees. For regular followers of our travels, the first 'tree-I've-been-dragged-through' of the holiday was an oak. There were some rather nice lock-keepers' cottages, including one with the most gloriously scented pale pink roses over the door, which wafted waves of perfume as I descended into the depths of the lock. The towpath was very busy, with dogwalkers, cyclists, hikers singly and in groups, one lady on a mobility scooter carrying a bargepole like a jouster's lance, who was working locks in a most peculiar manner, kids, parents, old folks, a British Waterways man on a quad bike - but on the canal, there were very few boats. The pub at Hanbury Wharf was practically empty, according to Drew. Most odd.
Incidentally – there are, as we know, horse and dog 'whisperers'. We suspect that Mum may secretly be a 'duck mumbler'.... 

The canal south of Hanbury is quite narrow, a result of a profligation of reeds and many overhanging trees, which makes for things getting interesting when passing/meeting the few other boats on the water (one guy said to us, as we moved aside to let him go by, 'looks like you're mowing the lawn!' - he, of course, had the clear water...). The rain came down hard as we headed for Worcester, and despite hats and ponchos sluicing the water off us, it still managed to find its way down necks and sleeves and soaked up trouser legs. Didn't make sense to stop for lunch and dry out between sets of locks only to get soggy again, so we pushed on, to an overnight mooring in the security of Worcester Marina, a shore party expedition to the supermarket, and investigations on the state of the river.
The following morning, with reports that things were OK, we set off through the city. Quite interesting, with Civil War connections.and bridges decorated with pikes and helmets.

Diglis Basin is really rather posh – lots of warehouse conversions and waterfront apartments- and there are two broad beam locks leading to the river, which can take two narrowboats at a time. Naturally, there were two going down ahead of us, so the assistance of a helpful BW man in operating the huge gates was very welcome. The water gauge was at amber, but only just, so it looked reasonable.

We took a big sweeping turn out onto the river, and pointed ourselves upstream. The river was quite smooth and reasonably calm, with no signs of debris coming downstream, and the city waterfront past the cathedral was lovely.

Against the current we were making around 3.5 miles an hour, compared to craft coming the other way, which must have been doing around 8 mph! Beyond the edge of Worcester, past the rowing clubs, the banks were thickly wooded, and it took only a small stretch of the imagination to turn them into rainforest sweeping down to the edge of an Amazonian tributary... the weather added some verisimilitude to the fantasy!

There are three locks on this stretch of the Severn; Bevere, Holt and Lincomb; huge caverns of concrete with automatic gates, operated by lock-keepers. The boater is guided in by a series of signal lights; you slip a rope (fore and aft) around a steel cable fixed into the side of the lock, which stops you rattling about like a pea in an oil drum, the gates close and you rise swiftly to the top. The gates open and you head on your way; it's all very efficient.

Huge weirs run beside the locks, protected by floating barriers. I stayed up front to deal with the ropes, and got a whole new perspective on the river, amidst the swallows and sand martins swooping past on either side. We spotted a couple of kingfishers on the way – well, Drew and I did, Mum as usual was looking the other way....
We pulled into the pontoon at Stourport so Drew could check out the entrance to the basin. A very, very narrow set of two staircase locks, with an awkwardly angled pound between them (you can just pass another boat, but I was glad that I didn't have to!) adding weight to my theory that if anyone can put a camel through the eye of a needle, it's a narrowboat wrangler! Handed over control to Drew to pick our way through the marina, all pontoons and moorings and boats, and people trying to be helpful telling us where we needed to go, which distracted us slightly and made it harder to get where we already knew we needed to be!

This was followed by ditherers at the waterpoint (if you pull up alongside a pontoon, and don't say anything, it does look more like mooring-up than 'we're waiting for the water point', you know, folks).
Now on the Staffs & Worcs Canal, we moored up for the night just by the Black Star pub, and were set upon by a swan. Her mate and cygnets took no notice of us, (looked more embarrassed than anything, to tell truth) but she worked her way along the full length of the hull attacking with beak and feet and wings, until Drew finally gave her a gentle shove-off with the blunt end of the boat-hook. She had another go when we left in the morning, and I can only think she could see her reflection in the paint; there was certainly a little less paint when we made our escape!

Kidderminster is rather bland; all the old carpet factories have been replaced by the boring boxes of modern industrial estates. The lock rises from an underpass below a roundabout into the environs of the town church, which is rather nice, and there are handy supermarkets beside the canal,which we availed ourselves of. Naturally, when a shore party is sent out, it rains heavily!

North of the town, the rural creeps back in, lush and green with some huge trees, and much of the canal is cut through the native sandstone, which appears here and there in waterscarred outcrops.

The weather improved the following day, which helped with the 18 locks we went through. We decided that, having got up river without losing any time, we had leeway to take a side-diversion up towards Aldersley, which lies at the bottom of the Wolverhampton Flight; we passed through these on our Birmingham trip in 2007, and it's always nice to complete a circuit!

The sandstone outcrops grew larger, miniature cliffs overhung with ivy and ferns, and the land remains green and lush and – generally – empty. We did see herds of black and white horses, though, which is always nice, and a canal trip requirement, and the locks, although spread out, remained individual and interesting. Botterham is a small staircase of 2, Bumblehole is below a small slanted bridge and is itself slightly on the squint, so is interesting to get into, and then comes Bratch!

It's 3 locks, and fascinating. It looks like a staircase, but it isn't; each chamber has gates top and bottom, with a pound between the locks. But the pounds are tiny – or appear so – only the width of the overhead footbridge, and not long enough for a boat! Apparently the magic happens behind the hedge, where there are side pounds and culverts which feed the water through.

The lock keeper (who has a rather attractive octagonal office) keeps you right about which paddles to raise/lower and which gates to open – from a driving point of view, it IS like a staircase, as you go directly from one lock into the next. Ended the day at a rather soggy mooring near Wightwick, and first use of the mooring-spikes, which put into action my patent mooring-spike markers/buffers – tennis balls cut to fit over the top of the spike and fixed on with cable ties. Works well, but I don't think it's had the 'passing dog' test yet.

Today we discovered 'Ground Whales' - they lie in wait below the ground paddles of a lock and blow out – 'whoosh' - to soak the unsuspecting lock-wrangler....
The seventh day of the trip saw the heavens open, and so much water fell that I'm surprised we didn't see a passing Ark. Serious rain. We did 3 miles, and 3 locks, turned round at Aldersley junction, went back through the last lock, and decided we'd had enough. Moored on a muddy bank beside a growing puddle, and spent an afternoon drying out and generally loafing. We're halfway through the holiday, and although there has been some decent weather, the general trend is sogginess.

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