Wednesday, December 09, 2009

No Further West – This Time!

Back in Bathampton, we needed to move off the moorings where BW had kindly let us stay for a week and not just two days, so we chugged on a bit towards Bath (not far away, anyway) and found a space where we could stay for up to 14 days. We were still hoping to get down on the River Avon and maybe travel as far as the outskirts of Bristol before coming back, but it all depended on the state of the river. So, every day or two, Dave walked down the locks and had a look at the river. Here's Pulteney Bridge and Weir, but the picture doesn't really show how much water was coming down – far too much to even think about taking a boat on it! Tony's boat was moored up on the river, and there it would have to stay until conditions were safe enough for him to move it to the canal. It was straining at its moorings but looked pretty safe.

After a trip along to a boatyard to get some diesel, we moored on the 3-day moorings a little closer to the city. Apart from being rather better moorings, that made it a bit easier for Val to walk into town. We didn't need to stay very long, because we were expecting visitors and needed to go and collect them. Meanwhile, Dave had the opportunity to wander along the canal and see butterbur in flower (well out of season!) and more of the architecture. Cleveland House used to be the headquarters of the Kennet and Avon Canal Company, and apparently had a trapdoor in the top of the tunnel through which paperwork was passed between boatmen and clerks. We can't see any sign of it now!

So, who were our visitors? Shireen and Thor, coming down all the way from Glasgow to see us! All we had to do was travel back to Bradford-on-Avon to meet them on the train – no problem! As you can see, they are both in fine fettle, and Thor likes his food!

The rain went on falling, though not ALL the time, but it was still too wet for Thor to get out and enjoy the towpath very much. When he did get out, his dislike of wellies was soon tempered by the realisation that they gave him a licence to splash in puddles!
All too soon, they were on their way back north again and we too realised that we had better start our return journey. After a day or two more in Bath, still waiting in vain for useful responses from the battery manufacturers, we decided to start eastwards. The Avon had gone down briefly (enough for Tony to get his boat off it and onto the canal) but, if we had gone downstream then, we would probably still be there, waiting for the levels to subside again, because it soon rose again.
We have often wondered about travelling on the Severn Estuary between Bristol, Portishead and Sharpness. Not an easy passage, and not to be undertaken in poor weather or without the guidance of a pilot! We had not considered it this time, even if we HAD reached Bristol. But . . another time? Wait and see!

Batteries – and the Somerset Levels!

Our battery problem on board Zindagi was getting worse, but all three solutions began to slot into place. (Thank you, Father!) We had invited Jonny and Sue to come and visit us on the boat while we were somewhere near them. They replied that they would love to see us but they were too busy with stuff at home, so would we like to come and see them? They would even drive up from near Glastonbury to collect us. Meanwhile, we had located a mobile auto electrical specialist who was happy to come and collect the batteries, charge them up and bring them back to us a day or two later, so all we had to do was arrange mooring at Bathampton for a week instead of two days. Good old British Waterways! When we phoned up to explain our problem, they very kindly gave us permission, so it was all arranged.

We got to Bathampton on the Sunday, giving Dave the opportunity to walk into Bath and see the canal as it slips decorously through the handsome cast iron bridges of Sydney Gardens. It must have been quite a clash of cultures when the working canal came through this genteel part of Bath back in the 1800s!

Lee the battery guy was coming to Bathampton at about lunchtime on Monday, so we ran the central heating and had the woodburner going before Dave disconnected the batteries and took them out, leaving the boat pretty much lifeless. Sue drove up at the same time and, although Lee was a little delayed, we were soon leaving Zindagi all locked up and heading down to the Somerset Levels! Here's a view of part of the River Brue with Glastonbury Tor in the background.

Jonny and Sue had warned us that they were very involved in some repairs, improvements and decoration in the bungalow that Jonny's parents were soon to move in to, so we went prepared to help, and were soon busy painting walls and ceilings. Don't get the idea that we were slaving away all the time – far from it! We enjoyed meeting some of their friends we hadn't met before, and were generously included in invitations out for two evenings and a lunchtime!

The few days were extended into a week, and Lee kindly re-arranged his return delivery of the batteries. His comments on the batteries were not encouraging, though. He had tested them after charging them and found the same problem as we had, that they were losing charge fast. "I think you'll go on having trouble with them" he said. Really nice and helpful bloke, and we have no hesitation in recommending him if you need auto electrics in the Bristol and Bath area. Dave e-mailed the manufacturers again, reporting Lee's comments and telling them that we would keep them advised of progress.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Down the Avon Valley

From Sells Green, the Kennet and Avon Canal seems to wander slowly through the countryside, and gradually down a few more locks until it gets to the edge of Trowbridge. Just past there, the River Avon appears from the north and, although it disappears again quite soon, the rest of the canal down to Bath follows the Avon valley closely. At Bradford-on-Avon, after going down the last lock before Bath, the canal soon finds itself going along a ledge on the wooded side of the valley. Then, at Avoncliff, the canal suddenly takes a right-angle turn and crosses the river and railway on the magnificent stone aqueduct built by John Rennie. You can just see the river hiding in the trees which line it as we look down from the canal's elevated position.

After just less than three miles of travel on the other side of the valley, the canal once again takes a flying leap over rail and river, this time over the Dundas aqueduct (another Rennie masterpiece) to Dundas Wharf, where a ¼ mile arm is all that remains of the Somersetshire Coal Canal, originally planned to reach Radstock, though it never did so. The main line of the K & A continues northwards towards Bath.

It had been raining for several days (or was it weeks?) and we could see that the river was fairly fast-flowing. Would we be able to get down on the Avon when we got to Bath, or would it be too full? Although we didn't really want to go all the way down into Bristol, perhaps it would be nice to go down as far as Hanham . . . A quick check with Tony (who had reached Bath some time ago) told us that there was no point in hurrying as the river was definitely too high at present.

So we dawdled! This part of the canal is set in some of the best scenery, only slightly marred by the fact that the high valley sides make mobile phone calls (and our internet connection) a very uncertain operation. At Dundas, the best place to make a phone call was in the middle of the aqueduct – not so good in the pouring rain!

A few days earlier, we had contacted the manufacturers of the 'leisure' batteries on Zindagi, as we had been having some problems for several weeks and they seemed to be getting worse. The batteries didn't hold charge properly and seemed to be very thirsty for topping up with distilled water. We had an email back that recommended us to take the batteries off the boat and give them a high charge "and everything should be fine". Easier said than done. This is our home, and taking the batteries out would be like disconnecting your house from the mains! About the only thing that would go on working would be the woodburner! Still, the batteries were definitely not right, so it seemed the best thing to do. We needed to find three things: 1) someone who could charge the batteries for us 2) somewhere to moor the boat that would be accessible and safe and 3) somewhere else to stay for a few days.

Bathampton seemed like a good place to aim for, but the moorings there were restricted to 48 hours only. We chugged on anyway, searching the internet and making phone calls to find possible battery specialists in the area. Hidden away below the canal and just next to the river at Claverton is Claverton Pumping Station (another pumping station we have never been inside!), which is another John Rennie design, using a waterwheel driven by the river to pump water up to the canal – unique!

Friday, December 04, 2009

The Challenge of Caen Hill

Heading westwards, our next major milestone was Devizes, and Caen Hill in particular. Since Wootton Rivers we had been on the 15-mile 'long pound', with no locks as the canal wriggled around the contours. Soon that would all change!

We arrived at Devizes Wharf in the late afternoon and planned to go down the 6 'Town' locks and 16 Caen Hill locks the following day. That evening and the following morning, we looked around to see if there was anyone else likely to be going down the locks, so that we could share the locks and help each other. The weather forecast was not all that good, and the morning sky's message was 'red sky in the morning – shepherds' warning'.

Just a couple of hundred yards ahead of us was 'Britannia', Tony's boat. He was planning to go down the flight that same day, and had arranged for David, a friend of his, to come and help him. We agreed to meet after the first lock and go down the flight together. After we had gone through the 'town' locks, Tony had to pop in to the BW office so, while we were waiting for him, the three of us decided to tie the two boats together and start down the flight 'breasted up', with Val steering the two boats and David and Dave working the locks. Tony had a surprise when he came out of the office and found Britannia was already part way down the hill!

After that, it was near record-breaking progress! One of the 3 blokes went ahead to prepare the next locks, while the other two operated the lock that the boats were going through. This meant that Val could drive straight out of one lock into the open top gates of the next. We were down the bottom of the Caen Hill 16 by 12:40, and we had only started off from Devizes Wharf at 9:20. That's 22 locks in 3 hours 20 minutes – just over 9 minutes per lock, which is good by any standards!

It's really worth looking at the scale of Caen Hill. Here is an aerial view, and here is some more information from British Waterways. There are lots of photos of it on the web, but here's one Dave took the next morning. Tony had gone on further but we were happy to stay there overnight. There was no hurry!

One of our memories is of taking a detour via Devizes on a family visit from Romford to Bristol back in the 70s or early 80s, just to see this magnificent flight of locks, even though it was completely derelict at the time. The next time we saw it was when we took a boat up it in 2004 – wow!

After Caen Hill, 'ordinary' locks might seem a little dull, but the remaining 7 locks down to Lower Foxhangers Farm have their own charm, with longer pounds between them and some side ponds as well.
We didn't travel far that day; just pottered on to Sells Green and filled up with water. We had thought to go a bit more but, in the event, decided to stay there overnight.

Over The Top Again – Twice More !

Once we had climbed the Crofton flight, we reckoned on a couple of days of westward travel before we should turn round in order to be able to meet Terry and Di back at Kintbury, so we went on, through the 500-yard Bruce Tunnel and down the Wootton Rivers locks that afternoon – a bit too far! There were some nice moorings just near the village of Wootton Rivers, but we thought we could just go on a little further before the light failed. We ended up having to moor a long way out from the bank, only JUST able to get on and off the boat without getting very wet!

Never mind, we didn't fall in, and were soon enjoying the scenery of the Vale of Pewsey, though we didn't stop at Pewsey Wharf this time. Not only did the trees give us a brilliant autumn display, but we soon caught our first glimpse of the white horse on the hills near Alton Barnes. When we were first here five years ago, Dave remembers thinking that there must be more than one of them, as we kept seeing it from different angles as the canal twisted and turned. No, there is just one! We needed more diesel soon, and were able to buy some at Honeystreet, though the boatyard's supplies were low, so they could only let us have 50 litres. Not enough to fill the tank, but enough to keep us going for a good while!

We were going to see the white horse again soon, as we decided to turn around just after just the village of All Cannings, and headed back through Honeystreet to Pewsey. This time, we did stop, filling the water tank while Dave nipped into the town to do some quick shopping.

We knew where we wanted to moor that night – NOT in the stretch of canal where we couldn't reach the bank, but at the moorings just above the bottom lock at Wootton Rivers. Very nice too!

The next day, we were cruising back through the little Bruce Tunnel and down the Crofton flight again, getting to Great Bedwyn before it got dark. That's when we heard from Terry and Di about their change of plans – they couldn't come and meet us after all! There was no need to go back to Kintbury, so we stayed and enjoyed a couple of days in Great Bedwyn, including a most enjoyable Sunday lunch at the Cross Keys, one of the most relaxed and easy-going 'front room' type pubs we have been to.

Fortunately, there is room to turn a narrowboat at Great Bedwyn, so we turned and set off towards Crofton again on the Monday morning, expecting to get over to Wootton Rivers again by the evening. Arriving at the lock next to Crofton Pumping Station, though, we were greeted by another boater whom we had seen earlier as he started off before us. Tony gave us the news that there was a problem with the lock and we were unlikely to go much further that day! We watched and listened as the British Waterways guys poked and tried to shift something that was holding the bottom lock gates open a little, allowing the water out as fast as the top paddles would let it in! They talked of maybe needing to get divers in the next day, but apparently Alistair would come and sort it all out in the morning –they hoped!

Another boater who was 'stranded' above the same lock but had her car nearby kindly offered a lift into Marlborough if we needed any shopping, so that was very useful, but we were still stuck for an unknown time while the lock was out of action.

You may be wondering why there is a picture of a windmill here. We were not in Norfolk or the Fens again but, sure enough, on the hill opposite the pumping station and just above the little village of Wilton, there stood a fine brick windmill! It turns out that it was built in 1820 with all the benefits of the lastest technology of the time and with 700 years of windmill history behind it – but why? The answer is very much canal-related!

Some of the local watermills had been demolished or had lost their powerful water supply as a result of the building of the Kennet and Avon Canal. Apparently the windmill thrived for about 30 years until it too was superseded by the more powerful steam mills and fast rail transport, falling into disuse in 1908. Like the canal, it has been restored, but doesn't get the same amount of use!

As promised, Alistair turned up the next morning and started to investigate the lock problem again. No need for divers; after very thorough probing, he shifted half a brick and some smaller stuff and thought it was worth trying to see if the lock would fill. If he was happy to try that, then Tony and we thought 'why not have a couple of boats in it at the same time?' So Tony's 'Britannia' and 'Zindagi' slipped into the lock, not knowing whether we would have to back out again if it didn't fill properly.

Happily, it worked! Britannia and Zindagi moved out of the lock to proceed up the rest of the flight, and the other stranded boat moved in to go down. At the top of the locks, we decided to stop, but Tony pressed on. He had a deadline to meet. He texted us later to say that he made it to Pewsey at 5.25 p.m. in the dark!

The next day, we chugged on to All Cannings, stopping on the way at Pewsey for water and another quick dash into town for Post Office and shopping. Our little detour was over and we were ready to continue westwards . . .