Rewind to Monday 15th August
Fenny Compton to Napton
Such a lovely day…
We had decided to cruise a long weekend to give ourselves a more comfortable chance of getting to our target destination, the Middlewich Branch of the Shropshire Union, by August Bank Holiday. We had to get down the Napton flight, and were anticipating queues, so we got up reasonably early. We had moored close to the bridge, and had notice the passage of several boats very early on. When I took Herbie for his morning walk, I noticed that the back pin had almost been dragged out of the soft ground; on the way back from our walk, I saw the front pin come loose; then, as I was waving at Richard to grab the centre rope, the back pin popped out, setting Indigo Dream adrift. It wasn’t a problem, we were more or less ready to cast off anyway and I mused ruefully that either Indigo Dream was straining to get away from the Oxford Canal, which hasn’t suited her at all; or maybe it was the Oxford Canal ejecting us for not being appreciative enough of its merits 🙂
Richard did a car shuffle to Wigrams Turn while I cruised the boat along the long and winding lock free pound to Napton top lock. Luckily there were very few boats coming towards me as I negotiated the contorted convolutions of the summit. However, there was a slow boat in front of me, heading for Napton, and I was aware of the vast bulk of a traditional carrying boat behind me. I had thought it was nb Chertsey, but I later found out that it was nb Renfrew.
“Is my team ploughing?” asked the ghost in Houseman’s poem – you could almost see them here…
Coming round one hairpin bend, I suddenly saw that the boat in front had pulled over to the towpath on the left; I thought he might have pulled over to let an oncoming boat through, if that were the case then there would be no room if I stayed on the right so I pulled in behind him too. As it turns out, there was no-one coming – he’d pulled in to let his wife off with the dogs for a walk. He courteously invited me to overtake, but as I maneuvered to get past him, nb Renfrew hove into view behind me and had to hit reverse quickly, as I had done only minutes earlier – you couldn’t make it up!
I had a smooth journey after that, apart from a slight delay from a narrowboat who had lost a flowerpot overboard and had essentially blocked the canal while they tried to search for it with a boat hook. They weren’t so courteous and forced me, then Renfrew, to wait while they had a last prod after their pot before finally decided to move on!
A little further on, I saw a woman and two dogs standing rather irritably on the towpath; I guessed it was the lady of the boat that had let me past earlier. I hastened to reassure here that her boat was fine and that her husband had kindly let me and Renfrew past and that he would be along very soon. She didn’t seem impressed by her spouse’s generosity – oops!
It was a wonderfully sunny day, so I was wearing my rather eccentric, but efficient, sun hat. As one boat passed, the skipper shouted “you’ve been to Zimbabwe”. He was absolutely right, we went there on honeymoon! I asked him how he knew – he said he recognised my hat, he’s got a Zimbabwean sun hat too – he’s the first to have ever recognised its origin 🙂
Interesting mooring – that boat is sitting in a hollow basin just big enough for one….
Despite these little interludes, it was another slow journey, but the canal demands your time and attention here. The summit of the Oxford Canal is achingly beautiful, with a rural landscape worthy of A E Houseman. It felt as if I’d been transported to some pre-war idyll before the world had discovered the horrors of industrialised combat. As the fecund fields rolled by, I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if the Shropshire Lad had materialised here in Oxfordshire for a spot of ploughing with his faithful team of shire horses.
I was in whimsical mood when I spotted Richard waiting for me near bridge 127 or thereabouts – he’d cycled up the hill from Napton, having successfully dropped the car off near bridge 109. He reported a mighty queue at Napton top. When we eventually arrived there, there were at least 10 boats in front of us waiting to lock down. There were soon 10 boats behind us too, though it was a sociable queue and we had the chance to talk to the crew of Renfrew, who were delightful. Richard had also spotted nb Zavala ahead of us – they had been part of the Medway convoy so I walked up to have a chat. I felt a bit better when they said they’d been yelled at by that boater in Cropredy too! I mused that maybe Indigo Dream and Zavala simply hadn’t adapted quickly enough from the vast width of the estuary to this narrow and bucolic waterway.
Whirlwind! The photo doesn’t do it justice – it was an amazing sight…
The queue gave us time to have lunch and to witness a phenomenon. It was a very hot day, and all of a sudden a breeze turned into a whirlwind which carried straw from an adjacent field hundreds of feet into the air – as the whirlwind moved across the canal great clumps of straw fell onto the boats before being carried along to the next field. It was an amazing sight, and one which I haven’t seen since 1996, when I saw a similar whirlwind not so far away from here.
We were next in the queue at Napton top when we had a strange encounter – the lady from a boat coming up the flight was being exceptionally officious as she tried ordering the waiting queue around and transmitted her instructions to her husband on the helm. Her idea was that her husband would come up the flight, wind at the top lock then go back down the flight immediately. She wanted us to moor back from the lock landings so that he would have more room to turn and was aggrieved when we had to shuffle forward to make room for the boat coming up in front of here to moor on the 48 hour moorings just behind the lock landings. The queue wasn’t impressed with her apparent attempt to jump the queue down; or her elaborate explanations for why we’d need to wait while they offloaded crew on the offside etc etc. In the end, they decided not to wind, much to my relief, and went to cause bother at the back of the queue instead!
Out of Africa…
I was quite relieved when we started down the flight – we’d been waiting for some time, but once we got going, we flew down. But we did find time to say hello to a little lurcher that belonged to a boat coming up the flight.
We got to the bottom of Napton mid afternoon and faced a decision on how far to go. The car was at Bridge 109, but that wouldn’t prevent us from going a little further – maybe making the turn onto the Grand Union and going down Calcutt or even Stockton. In the end, we found a truly lovely mooring spot just before bridge 109 and decided to finish early and beat the traffic home.
Richard was very unimpressed with the tow path!
The view towards Napton bottom…
I wanted to capture how a big working boat looms over the lock gates – it was quite a sight…