Monday, December 20, 2010

Sandstone, Physios and Déjà Vu!

It was back on 9th October that we arrived in Stourport from the River Severn, so you can tell how behind this blog is! In case you wonder where we are NOW, please just click on the 'Where Zindagi is Now' link. We expect to be here near Blisworth for a month or two, so hopefully that will give us a chance to get you up to date!

We have enthused before about the Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal, especially this southern part. Just a few weeks earlier, we had made our way down to the edge of Wolverhampton on the northern section, and here we were heading north to the same destination! Val's appointment at Shrewsbury Hospital Fracture Clinic was booked for the 19th, so we had time for a relaxed cruise up through pleasant countryside, following the seam of red sandstone like this cliff at Caldwall Lock on the outskirts of Kidderminster. 

Other characteristics of this canal are its lock cottages and the frequent use of round weirs.  This one is at Debdale Lock, where we noted the rock-carved stable in February 2008

Whittington Lock near Kinver shows off its pretty cottage.

We soon came to the Bratch Locks near Wombourne, and were helped up them by the young lock-keeper. Seems like we may have seen his father when we first came this way in 1976! Since then, the octagonal lock office has lost its layers of white paint and been returned to the original brick. These locks are fascinatingly different from any others we know. Though they look like (and were originally designed as) a set of 'staircase' locks, they have TWO sets of gates between each lock chamber, but impossibly close together, just a few feet! The secret is in the large 'side pounds', where water is stored, which are connected by channels to the space between the gates. Hard to explain, quite like the arrangement at Caen Locks (Devizes) on the Kennet and Avon (which are also not staircase locks), but contracted into shorter spacing between locks. A bit daunting for the newcomer (like us in 1976), but OK when you understand how they work!

Predictably, we arrived back near Wolverhampton (and so within reach of Shrewsbury) a day or two earlier than necessary, so we simply 'mooched' on a little further up the Staffs & Worcs before returning to our rendezvous with Adam for a lift to Shrewsbury.

Val's arm came out of plaster on 19th October and the medics were pleased with the healing process, but of course then the physios needed to help her to get it mobile again, so we couldn't go away for a while longer! They wanted to see her again a week later, so we took another little trip up the Shropshire Union, this time going as far as Goldstone Bridge before turning back to Wheaton Aston. Here's Boat Inn Bridge at Gnosall Heath.

The next week, the physios were happy with Val's progress, though they still wanted her to come back after another 2 weeks, but that would give us plenty of time to get on our way to our intended winter mooring at Blisworth. So, guess what? Up the Wolverhampton flight for the fourth time, just 5 weeks after we last went up – and we have never been DOWN these locks, only up them!
Our route was then an exact copy of the last time. We stopped overnight in the same place at the top of Wolverhampton Locks, and again in Gas Street Basin, for the third time in exactly the same spot. On the way, Birmingham's Main Line treated us to its own display of autumn colours.

Friday, December 17, 2010

South West On The Severn

Coming down the Severn from Worcester, we were exploring one of the few remaining parts of the English waterways system which we hadn't visited – apart from the disconnected bits! The Severn has a bit of a reputation for strong flows after heavy rain, but the levels were OK and there was no immediate prospect of HEAVY rain, just the persistent drizzly stuff.

We left Worcester's Diglis Basin after filling up with water and getting an early lunch, down through the wide locks and out onto the river, then almost immediately into our first Severn river lock, also called Diglis Lock. The lock-
keeper 'did the honours' for us and asked where we were planning to stop that night. When we told him, he said, "I'll see you at Upper Lode Lock tomorrow, then."

An uneventful 2½ hour trip down as far as Upton-on-Severn, where we found space for the night on the mooring pontoon, and were rewarded with beautiful, slightly misty light the next morning.

Spiders' webs in the nearby field were suitably adorned with water droplets too!

Setting off in the morning, we were down in Tewkesbury before 11:30, going under Mythe Bridge and then past the entrance to the Stratford Avon. That's another waterway we haven't visited yet. We had wondered about tackling it this year, but decided to leave it until we can enjoy it in sunnier weather! (So it's pencilled in for 2011)

Just a few minutes later, we were in Upper Lode Lock, where the same lock-keeper greeted us and also gave us a leaflet about the approach to Gloucester – special precautions needed. We had heard about them before, and had plenty of time to read the leaflet over the next 14 miles or so. About 2½ miles north of Gloucester, the Severn divides into two channels, with boats taking the narrower East Channel – and that's where the fun begins!

The unusual feature of Gloucester Lock is that you come DOWNstream on the river and then the lock takes you UP to the level of the Docks and the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. In a more normal situation, boats coming downstream would pull into a short length of canal leading to the lock, while the river pours over a weir to a LOWER level, where boats arrive having gone DOWN the lock.

As the previous picture shows, at Gloucester the lock looms high ahead with no approach canal, while the river flows vigorously off to the right – and you have to wait for the lock-keeper to open the lock! That's where the chains on the long wall are absolutely vital; you have to hang onto those (preferably with the engine in reverse) until the lock is ready, the signal changes to green, and you enter the lock quite quickly to avoid being pulled past by the river current. Not as scary as it may sound, but you need to have some idea what you are doing! As this picture shows, we made it OK without a problem and were soon on our way up into . . .

 . . . Gloucester's historic Dock basin, surrounded by tall former warehouses which are now business premises, flats, a waterways museum and Council offices, not to mention British Waterways offices and a specialist in wooden-hull boats!

We were just in time to witness the arrival of the former lightship 'Sula', which had been towed up from Sharpness and was about to start a new life as an 'alternative therapy studio', moored just outside the docks.

A couple of days later, David and Mary joined us for a few days, and we set off down the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal. No locks, but quite a few movable bridges – all operated for us by bridge-keepers, so very leisurely travel! Talking of which, we met up several times with the 'Edward Elgar' cruise ship, which we had already met further up the river near Tewkesbury. The weather was fairly bleak and grey, so the view down the estuary to the two Severn road bridges did not look specially inviting! It is possible to take narrowboats down the estuary, into the Avon at Avonmouth and then up to Bristol, but you need a pilot and good weather. We hadn't planned to do that trip this time, and simply turned round at Sharpness and headed back to Gloucester.

David and Mary headed back to Devon and we planned our return upstream. Apparently, while we had been down to Sharpness, the Severn had been in flood and was only just returning to navigable condition. The lock-keeper told us that, if the level was down enough, we could leave through the lock at 8 am the next morning, and that the incoming tide would help us upstream.

All was OK, and we left with another narrowboat as scheduled. The tide had not started rising yet, though, so we were battling against the river flow UP the narrow East Channel, plus we also met the 'Edward Elgar' again, coming downstream. Several miles upstream, at about 10 am, we suddenly found ourselves accelerating as the tide reached us and took us nicely up to Upper Lode Lock just on the high tide time. The levels above and below the lock and weir were the same and we could almost have cruised straight through!

Upstream to Worcester again, but not to turn off the way we came! We came under the new Diglis footbridge, through the lock and past the entrance to Diglis Basin, mooring up next to the racecourse. The next morning it was Saturday, and the river filled up with rowing boats!

On our way upstream, we thought we might just visit the Droitwich Barge Canal and go up into Droitwich itself. Dave had walked into the town from the other end on our way down, and the waterways press was full of the fact that the Barge Canal had been restored and re-opened, so we were pleased to see Hawford Lock apparently ready to welcome us – only to find that the top gates were padlocked shut! The story goes that yes, the canal was restored and yes, some boats had been up to Droitwich but no, we couldn't go in as the necessary Health & Safety signage was not in place. No notice explaining anything, we just met someone who knew. After all the razzmatazz, rather an own goal, British Waterways!

And so to Stourport! We had been here before, but only via the canal, so it was nice to come up the two pairs of staircase locks and into the upper basin.