Saturday April 25th April King’s Lock (Thames) to Lower Heyford
We failed, yet again, to drag our weary bodies out of the house on Friday evening so we came back to the boat on Saturday morning instead. Good decision – we got our planned cruising for the weekend done anyway and missed the Friday night traffic. That’s a luxury that won’t be available to us as we get further north but for now we’re still within 90 minutes drive of home.
We cheekily parked up in the ‘Trout Inn’s’ car park (by Godstow Bridge) and soon walked up to the boat with the two dogs and the rest of our paraphernalia. As expected, Indigo Dream had been fine at the King’s Lock mooring – I think it’s just too out of the way for troublemakers (or maybe there are no troublemakers in the area – that’s a nice thought!). We were entertained by a couple of hire boats approaching the lock, complete with one male crew member dressed as a female pirate. Sadly his many friends seem to have forgotten to tell him that they’d ditched the fancy dress – they were all in jeans!
Richard cycled back to sort out the car and I loafed around on the boat, waiting for the call to move. The plan was for him to leave his car in one of the numerous FREE park n’ ride car parks scattered around Oxford then cycle back to meet me at Duke Cut’s Lock.
Once I got the call to move, I reversed off the mooring and turned in the entrance to the Duke’s cut (having had a chat with Richard and a long internal debate about whether the lock cut was wide enough for a turn). In the end there was no reason to risk it – easy enough to reverse back and use the full width of the river. Then it was back down Duke’s cut. Now it’s only a week since we were last down here but I swear it was much more overgrown than before. I couldn’t work it out – had there been a storm to blow the shrubbery into the water? D’oh – it was just everything riotously coming into leaf. That made the cut seem narrower but there’s plenty of room, though sod’s law dictates that the only two boats I met were on a bend and in the narrows respectively!
The boat coming out of Duke Cut lock heartily recommended Banbury, our weekend target, so we were off to a good start.
After my experiences of the very bottom (literally!) of the Oxford Canal last weekend, I wasn’t holding out much hope for the rest of it. But actually it was fine, and by Sunday I was prepared to concede that parts were very lovely indeed. The further north we went the friendlier the people became, which restored my faith in the canals. The stretch roughly between Duke’s Lock and Pigeon Lock felt very crowded and narrow, but then again, we’ve just spent 11 crusing days on the wide and empty Thames so maybe it’s just our perspective.
Having said that, the one advantage of seeing lots of boats was the chance to have a nose at the various gadgets on the
decks and in engine compartments. We were particularly taken by the practical arrangement of one boat’s batteries, which were in an easily removable panel for access at deck level. I was impressed by a rotary washing line on the roof of another boat, with a wide stand to keep it all stable. How sad is that – with the whole of the Oxfordshire countryside waiting to be admired we’re admiring domestic gadgets!
But let’s get back to the cruise. Richard had efficiently prepared the first lock on the canal and left the bottom gate open for me as I turned out of Duke’s Cut. As I was nudging out of the cut I heard the faint sound of a horn and, sure enough, a narrowboat hove into view heading for the open lock. They must have thought their luck was in! I stopped and so did they, courteously letting me into the lock that Richard had prepared. I know it was ‘our’ lock but I still thought it was a nice touch – thanks!
So we said goodbye to the river and started the slow (literally) adjustment to the pace of life on the canals. It took us a while to get use to how slow the Oxford is. Where there aren’t any moored boats it’s shallow, so 1,000 revs was a good as it got, though we actually spent most of the weekend in tickover. We knew we weren’t doing anywhere near 4mph, but when we calculated our average for the day we reckoned we’d managed a useful 3 lock-miles per hour – better than we’d expected but then most of the locks were set our way. It’s fair to say, though, that if you need an accurate plan for your cruising on this canal, budget for no more then 3mph.
Although it took us a while to adjust, the dogs immediately perceived the advantages of canal life. They were off exploring at every lock and swingbridge – it’s a marvellously isolated waterway and there are few roads to worry about. They had a wildly active day.
Note: There’s good dog rummaging at Roundham Lock. The railway is just over the lock bridge but the level crossing is well fenced/gated.
This is a popular waterway with lengths of online moorings and many boats on the move. We saw lots of hire boats – many sporting crews of young people (mainly men) dressed in pirate or sailor suits. They all seemed to be having a good time and I guess that getting the young into boating, even if it is in silly costumes, is the only way to ensure the future survival of the waterways 🙂 One peculiarity we did notice is that the normal rules seem to have been suspended and it’s not unusual to find boats moored on bends, in narrow places and under bridges.
We’d intended to stop at Kidlington for a bit of shopping but in the end it was just too nice a day. We had milk on board (for our numerous lattes), we had dog food, what more could we need? It was a glorious day – very warm in the sunshine with puffy white clouds frolicking like lambs over the vibrant blue sky. The wind was cool but I managed to avoid putting on my heavy fleece. Richard was trotting around in a T-shirt, but then again, he was doing all the hard work at the locks and lift-bridges. There were enough of both to make the canal interesting but not so many as to be onerous.
Just above Kidlington we kept a sharp lookout for Bones – she’s been seriously considering getting a dog and we hoped to catch her and introduce her to Blue and Lou. We were sure that they’d talk her into taking that last step and getting a hound of her own. As if happened we spotted Maffi’s boat first and stopped off for a chat with him. We had a pleasant chinwag and found out that Bones was out – apparently she was, at that moment, visiting a potential dog for her boat – Hurrah! We can’t wait to hear whether she got a dog – I hope she’ll blog soon. By chance, while we were chatting to Maffi, we met a dainty greyhound being walked with her owners. Given the large number of greyhounds we’ve met recently, I have to conclue that Oxford’s Retired Greyhound Trust is doing a great job. Shortly after all three hounds were engulfed in fuss from a crowd of young women dressed as pirates (it was that sort of day!). One of the girls came from a family who raced greyhounds – they had 15 (see Greygal, I knew we didn’t have enough!). The girl was careful to say that they kept every one of their racing dogs after retirement – excellent.
Maffi tried to persuade us to wait for Bones and we were sorely tempted, but we decided not to sacrifice an early finish on Sunday and moved on. We saw Bones the boat moored a little further up and hope that we’ll meet her on the cut another time.
Our next bit of interest was looking out for our friend’s boat, nb North Star, moored at Thrupp. We weren’t sure whether they’ve started on their summer cruise yet but hoped that we might find them on board. But when we spotted North Star she still looked wrapped up for winter. Maybe they’ll catch up with us later on – I do hope so.
We were interested by the lozenge-shaped Shipton Weir Lock – what a strange construction it is. Last time we came through here, we managed the feat of geometry needed to fit two 60-foot narrowboats into this odd space. I had it to myself this time and let Indigo Dream drift about in the negligible flow.
Shipton Weir Lock signals the first of the river sections. The Cherwell was quiet and benign today but I understand that it can pose more than a few challenges when it’s in spate. Today, however, it was stunning, with meanders worthy of the upper Thames. Along with the verdant countryside so typical of a river valley, this section also had a bit of interest in the form of a massive cement works on the left and a bank of radio telescopes in the distance to the right. The cement works looked derelict but just after bridge 221, on the left, watch out for an outfall from the works – hidden in the steep and densely planted bank there’s an unexpectedly attractive cascade of white water falling into the river.
We were sad to leave the Cherwell, but we know that there are other river sections to look forward to. I’m in ‘river’ mode at the moment, which is strange, because when I’ve been on the canal for a while my active imagination associates rivers with being swept to our doom over a weir. Then when I’m back on the rivers I switch immediately into a deep enjoyment of their freedom and touch of unpredictability.
Pigeon Lock marks the end of civilisation for a while. The lock itself is in a very attractive spot with predictably extensive residential moorings. It also has an appealingly eccentric canalside shop and cafe. But what most characterised this lock was what came after, miles of uncluttered canal surrounded by beautiful countryside.
Soon after Pigeon lock, the canal passes under a steep embankment on the right, wooded, green and lovely. It’s on the offside so we we were surprised to see that there were visitor moorings all along. These are superior visitor moorings, especially if you have a dog (or need firewood for your stove!). Apparently it’s only a mile to the nearest pub so that’s another advantage. But we wanted to be closer to a pub than that so we carried on, with a tinge of regret.
Many times on the odyssey (and it’s only day 12) we’ve spotted some fine mooring spots but passed them by because it wasn’t the right time. I hope we get a chance to visit some of them if/when we come this way again.
As the afternoon drifted into evening we came to our first cruising target of the afternoon- Lower Heyford. This is another boating settlement and it was a surprise to be back among a community of narrowboats after having the canal to ourselves for the last few hours. There are moorings below Heyford Wharf Bridge, but they’re right on the edge of the railway line so we decided to move on a little further. It’s worth noting that the waterpoint is just below Heyford Wharf Bridge and that there’s a handy waste disposal point on the bridge itself.
We moved through the bridge and found that the towpath mooring was quite crowded. We slipped into the first available space but it wasn’t ideal – the towpath was only a few metres away from the railway line and separated by a rickety fence which we didn’t deem to be dog-proof. Richard scouted ahead on foot and found a perfect spot just after the bend in the canal, where the railway line suddenly peels away from the canal and is safely separated from it by the river. In attempt to dodge the boats moored on the bend I managed to ground Indigo Dream right around her pivot point so we could swivel round but couldn’t go forward or back – oops! At this point we abandoned the teaching of Malcolm (our tremendous trainer on the Helmsman’s certificate course) and resorted to brute force. Richard slipped down the gunwhales and applied a muscular boot to the tree (on whose roots we were stuck) to release us. Worked a treat!
We made the mistake of walking back to Heyford Wharf Bridge in order to get to the Bell pub. We’d have been better off
walking up to the lift-bridge! Never mind, it was a great evening for a walk and dogs enjoyed yet another stroll. The Bell is possibly the most dog-friendly pub we’ve ever been to. It was full of dogs, and briefly full of barking every time a new pack-mate came through the door. But there was plenty of room and Blue and Lou soon settled onto their sheepskins. The local people were very friendly and we ended up talking greyhounds and boating for most of the evening. We had a particularly nice time chatting to the crew of nb Vanguard. They were fascinating – real boating pioneers who’d been boating since the eraly 80’s. They’d had many intrepid adventures along many derelict and barely open waterways that we now take for granted. Richard also fascinated by their boat’s construction – it has 10mm steel throughout! Maybe that’s what was needed when navigating the barely watered canals 30 years ago 🙂
We were well impressed by the Bell Inn – great atmosphere, good company, dog-friendly and delicious food – the perfect finish to a fine day’s cruising.
A few more views and plenty of cute dog photos (of course!).