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The Odyssey 2009: Day 9

Posted by indigodream on 21 April, 2009

Friday 17th April: Sandford to Bablock Hythe

Footbridge renovation - the new metal bridge will be a more vibrantly attractive feature than the sympathetic old timber structure

Footbridge renovation - the new metal bridge will be a more vibrantly attractive feature than the sympathetic old timber structure

Remarkably, we managed to get up early this morning and had an unhindered drive from Surrey to Sandford. It rained heavily for most of the trip and we anticipated waterproofs, but as we arrived the rain cleared though it stayed cool and overcast all day. As expected, Indigo Dream had been perfectly fine at the lock mooring – it’s always a relief, even though we KNEW she’d be safe and secure here.

I know I’ve said this before (and will do many times again) but the lock-keepers on the Thames are treasures, even the most taciturn ones (and there aren’t many of those). Before we set out, Richard had a long chat with the lockie at Sandford, checking out the river conditions following the week’s rain and getting the low-down on 5-day moorings in and around Oxford. The lock-keeper was a mine of information – the river was fine, the moorings, as predicted, were few! However, he did tell us about potential moorings at King’s Lock, on the Thames just North of Oxford. This proved to be a useful tip but we blithely shelved the issue until later – we had 3 days of cruising ahead of us before we needed to decide so off we went. Ooh, while I remember, the lock-keeper at Sandford has recently started learning to play the accordion – good on him. Sadly he was too shy to give us a recital !

But they also build in stone here.....

But they also build in stone here.....

While Richard was chatting, I took the dogs for a run round the meadow by the lock. Surprise surprise, they weren’t interested! Lou did the essentials and ran back to the gate; Blue did some desultory rummaging and I had to force them to come round the meadow with me. I think they’ve finally ‘normalised’ the boat and don’t feel the same urge to dash about as they did on the first few days; or maybe they’re still knackered after last weekend!

We did a car swap with a difference today – Richard needed to get the car up to Oxford and scout around for suitable weekend parking (not easy in this city), but he didn’t want to leave me solo through the locks (lock-keepers notwithstanding). So I took the boat up to each lock and he drove up to meet me.

It all worked very smoothly, though I’m sorry that he missed the stretch between Sandford and Iffley locks as it was particularly scenic. The river tantalised me with a few meanders – harbringer of the last stretch up to Letchlade. Of course, round each bend you seem to get a new view, as if the river was entering a new realm with every turn.

Low headroom at Osney bridge - and that's at low river levels!

Low headroom at Osney bridge - and that's at low river levels!

After Iffley Lock, Oxford starts to make its presence known – and not in a good way. We cruised through Oxford on the river in 2007 and I thought it was a dump. So I had a bit of the creeping dread as I closed in on the city. I wasn’t disappointed. The run up to Osney Lock isn’t too bad, but through the city, the river’s forced into a mean and twisted culvert – fettered and narrow. How I hate it here. The Lock-keeper at Osney brightened the scenery – Richard had a bit of difficulty navigating the car to the vicinity of the lock so I was solo on the boat until the lock was about half-full. Of course, you’re never alone with a…..lock-keeper.

Note: Nicholson’s warns you about the pull from the weir upstream of Osney Lock – the guide is absolutely right! I cut down my revs out of the lock to chat to Richard (who off back to the car) and was merrily dragged towards the weir; a few revs got me out of it but it’s worth watching out for!

Sheepwash Cut

Sheepwash Cut

Richard headed off on his bike to the next lock. I can honestly say he didn’t miss anything on the next bit of river. I find the stretch upstream of Osney a bit bleak – it’s green enough but it feels quite shabby compared to the wonders of the other riverside towns we’ve cruised through. Watch the headroom at Osney Bridge – the river’s low at the moment, so there was plenty of room through the centre arch, but I image a few cruisers must have lost their awnings here!

Note: Nicholson’s tell you that there are two channels at Folly Bridge and that you can use either. IGNORE this advice – Folly Bridge has 3 arches – use the CENTRE arch (watch out for boats coming downstream). Going upstream, the left hand arch is obscured by moored boats; if you take the right hand arch you’ll run straight into a pontoon full of punts!

Knowing that I don’t like Oxford by the river, I had high hopes of the canal. I’d had the idea that if the city had turned

Isis lock looked promising

Isis lock looked promising

its back on the river, maybe it had been wise enough to turn its face to the canal. I turned into the Sheepwash Channel and was faced with overgrowth and dereliction with the skeleton of a swingbridge that once carried the railway over the canal. The bridge still has railway tracks and from the towpath you can see right into Oxford Station sidings. The end of the Sheepwash channel comes quite abruptly – despite studying the map several times I really hadn’t realised what an acute turn it was into Isis lock. The lock onto the canal proper is literally behind you as you come into the basin at the end of the channel. There’s plenty of room to turn but take my word for it, it’s much easier if you don’t overshoot and have to reverse back to get the right line!

I felt better when Richard caught up with me on the bike and expressed equal surprise at the lock’s location – he hadn’t realised what an acute turn it was either!

Isis lock is green and pleasant with a well-used towpath. As Richard went off for his last trip in the car, I started to hope

Suburban canal

Suburban canal

that the canal through Oxford might be ok after all. But no, I’d hardly travelled 500 yards when I got an unpleasant bit of ear ache from a boater. At first I thought he was being friendly, but he was being nastily sarcastic, accusing me of going so fast as to have a bow wave (in tickover at 800 revs – swans produce a bigger ripple!); when I told him I was going as slow as I could, he snapped ‘no you’re not’ and told me to pull over so he could adjust my gearbox. Of course I didn’t – would you let a hostile on board??

I’m afraid that I let that incident spoil my whole day – I was so upset because I was boating as considerately as I knew how, but still the denizens of this miserable backwater weren’t satisfied.  ‘Welcome to Oxford’ I though ruefully. Richard just thinks that the continuous moorers can’t cope with seeing boats moving . . . .

Of course, the rest of the canal through Oxford would need to be exceptional to make up for that sorry bit of bother.

Agenda 21 moorings at St Edward's liftbridge

Agenda 21 moorings at St Edward's liftbridge

But it’s not. It’s a dull suburban canal – narrow, shallow and oppressive. There is little by way of visitor moorings up to Wolvercote lock – a few stretches of 24-hour and 48 hours interspersed with full banks of residential (Agenda 21) moorings or deserted towpath ‘conservation’ areas. But really, there’s nothing here to conserve. I was the only boat moving on the water and I felt like an intruder though, in all fairness, I didn’t encounter any more overt hostility, just a certain lack of warmth. I’m glad there weren’t any boats coming down the canal – with residential moorings on one side and little rowing boats moored at the end of each back garden there really wouldn’t have been much room (if any) to pass.

The canal gets more rural past St Edward’s Lift Bridge (mercifully left open). This was much better scenery than the boring back gardens but it didn’t lift my spirits. This part of the trip was interminable and I almost cried with joy when I saw

Nifty temporary liftbridge

Nifty temporary liftbridge

Richard cycling down the towpath on the reach up to Wolvercote lock and the first of the (closed) Oxford Canal swingbridges a little further on.

It felt as if we’d been on the canal for many tedious hours but it can’t have been that long; the whole stretch from Sheepwash to Duke’s Cut is only around 3 lock miles! I guess it’s the whole ‘watched pot never boils’ syndrome – we couldn’t wait to get back to the Thames. We were in for another delay though. When we got to where the A34 and A40 cross the canal, the cut was closed with a very solid steel barrier at water level. My dread levels increased exponentially at the thought of either being stuck here or having to reverse right back to Sheepwash (no winding holes on this stretch).

Mechanical munchers enjoying a snack!

Mechanical munchers enjoying a snack!

But it turns out that the steel barrier was, in fact, a temporary road bridge which could be lifted to allow boats to pass – thank heavens. The workmen told us we’d have to wait until they’d received a delivery of concrete which was due in 25 minutes time. But Richard persuaded them that they’d have ample time to lift the bridge, let us through, and put it back down before their delivery arrived and so it proved. The bridge was interesting – it was lifted hydraulically on both sides – I thought it was a nifty bit of kit. Just past the bridge we got a fine view of the demolition of a dual carriageway – fascinating.

Shortly afterwards we turned into Duke’s Cut with a tremendous sense of relief and felt the tension drain away as we moved towards the Thames. Duke’s lock has yet another unique variation on the theme of paddle gear – the ground paddle control is in a big box on the side and to keep the paddle up you have to leave your windlass on and fix it place with a hook. It’s an

Yet another type of paddle gear!

Yet another type of paddle gear!

interesting fact that at Sheepwash you lock up to the canal from the river and at Duke’s lock you lock up from the canal to the river. Duke’s Cut itself is very scenic – much more open than the canal, with promises of broader vistas to come.

So, we were finally back on the Thames and looking forward to a new experience as we’ve never cruised this stretch before. And what a surprise the river had in store for us. From Duke’s Cut right up to Lechlade the canal squiggles around like some crayoned scribble etched on the landscape by a celestial toddler. It’s very lovely and has its own enchantment, even down to the names of the many tributaries that join the Thames here – Evenlode, Windrush, Coln. I was thinking they’re all Tolkienesque names then I remembered that Tolkien was an Oxford don and used these blessed counties as the template for middle-earth.

Aah, back on the river....

Aah, back on the river....

The landscape here is completely rural. We soon left the incessant noise of the big A roads behind us and when we turned the engine off at the locks there was no sound other than the soft soughing of the water and bright birdsong. The Thames path offers outstanding walks and this is an area that I’d like to explore again, maybe when we’re not on a deadline (for the BCN Challenge). There seem to be few restrictions on moorings (though some farmers charge a bargain £3 – 4 a night) so there’s plenty of opportunity for dog-walking and general exploration.

There was one major mooring restriction for us, though – sheep! Or more precisely, little lambs frolicking about. Blue spotted them from the boat and spent the next 20 minutes with nose a-twitch over the side as we cruised past acres of meadows full of fast-moving lambs  (he doesn’t pay much attention to sheep – they’re too slow). Blue was beside himself – he started barking like a girl and butting against the dog-proof deck doors – in the end we locked him inside until he calmed down!

I'll have mine well-done, with gravy, hold the mint sauce.....

I'll have mine well-done, with gravy, hold the mint sauce.....

The lock-keepers were a particularly jolly lot on this stretch, even though the locks were now manual. The locks up here seemed well-maintained and the few we had to do ourselves had beautifully balanced lock beams and easy counterbalanced  ‘wheel style’ paddle gear. Pinkhill Lock is especially lovely and so so quiet. They have 24-hour moorings and I wish we’d stopped here overnight.

As the river twists and turns around the empty countryside, it’s easy to lose track of where you are. The odd bit of civilisation and the rare sight of a bridge or farm in the distance was a welcome chance to catch up on how far we’d come. There are probably 3 footbridges for every road bridge on this stretch – says it all really. There was a bit of interest in Eynsham, where there’s an Anglo-Welsh hire centre. Surely this has to be the most remote hire centre in the country! There’s also a boatyard here which sells diesel (can’t tell you the price – we didn’t stop and they did not answer their phones on Sunday). I was also amused by the cruiser named ‘watertight alibi’, obviously a sister boat to ”crime pays’ who we passed last week!

Nice name - Sassie Lassie at the Bablock Hythe caravan park

Nice name - Sassie Lassie at the Bablock Hythe caravan park

A fellow boater at Eynsham Lock told us that the Ferryman pub further upstream (beyond the caravan park) was dog-friendly and had supplied a good sandwich lunch; it also has a favourable write-up in the Nicholson’s. So, that became our target.

Nicholson’s describes the caravan park as ‘unappealing’ – good word; it’s immaculate but not the most attractive of riverscapes. Unfortunately the pub, which I guess mainly serves the caravan park, also looked unappealing. But there are useful free Environment Agency moorings (24 hour) just upstream and it was time we stopped – it started to rain just as we finished tying up. The moorings are adjacent to an open meadow where Blue and Lou could have a run so it was a useful spot though we wouldn’t bother stopping here if it weren’t for the pub. As it happens we never got there! We went along and I spoke to a group of smoking locals outside – they told me that the the pub doesn’t allow dogs, oh, and “not being funny but do you pick up after your dogs”? “Yes’ was my emphatic answer but I was still treated to a lecture about the unpleasantness of dog poo – well yes, I know, I pick up enough of it!

It was too much – I felt thoroughly put-upon and didn’t even cross the pub’s threshold. I marched Richard and the dogs back to the boat where he kindly made me dinner. I was in a right strop – only wine, time or a mixture of both could cure it. I compromised on a beer and felt much better 🙂

Photoblog:

Interesting old building on the Thames upstream of Osney - wonder what it was used for?

Interesting old building on the Thames upstream of Osney - wonder what it was used for?

And this is where I got accused of speeding.....

And this is where I got accused of speeding.....

Shame there no 'sharp turn' signs on the cut approaching the other way!

Shame there no 'sharp turn' signs on the cut approaching the other way!

£20 for a pump out? I'll just keep my legs crossed thanks.....

£20 for a pump out? I'll just keep my legs crossed thanks.....

'stealth' fishing platform!

'stealth' fishing platform!

The view back to the Oxford Canal from Duke's Lock - it's a sharp turn!

The view back to the Oxford Canal from Duke's Lock - it's a sharp turn!

Attractive modern bridge carrying the busy A40 over Duke's Cut

Attractive modern bridge carrying the busy A40 over Duke's Cut

Another sad sight....

Another sad sight....

A view from Duke's Cut

A view from Duke's Cut

The power and art of the river

The power and art of the river

Misty middle earth - Tolkien's inspiration???

Misty middle earth - Tolkien's inspiration???

Couldn't agree more......

Couldn't agree more......

The objects of their desire.....

The objects of their desire.....

Yum Yum!

Yum Yum!

Lambs Ahoy!

Lamb Ahoy!

2 Responses to “The Odyssey 2009: Day 9”

  1. Greygal said

    Sue, it’s a fact of life that there will always be some miserable git who’ll want to rain on your parade. Just be grateful you’re not like them – poor, sad bastards who are not worth the inner aggro and angst you give yourself! If you were going past as slow as you could, then that’s all that matters. I find that smiling and waving at an abuser really winds them up – it’s great entertainment! Does Blue like mint sauce with his lamb?

  2. indigodream said

    Wise words – I know I shouldn’t take these things to heart. I’m always saying to my trainees that you can’t always control what happens, but you can control how you respond – now what was that about pot, kettle, black!!!!

    Blue says that mint sauce is ok provided it’s done to Delia’s recipe with the redcurrant jelly 🙂

    Lou says the mint gets stuck in her teeth and spoils her smile (though those of us who live with her breath would gladly pile it on for her!)

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