Snow, Ice And A Worrying List On The South Oxford Canal

So much for my plans to cruise far and wide on the inland waterways winter wonderland. I moved further on the first day of the month last year than I have all month in 2021. Still, I shouldn’t complain.

I returned to Calcutt Boats for a couple of days to buy coal and gas and do my laundry. Then I was off again on my windy winter wanderings. I cruised sideways up the cut to the bottom of the Napton flight of seven locks, delighted with my progress.

The South Oxford Canal is notoriously shallow, especially during the summer months. I’ve been down to Oxford and out onto the Thames several times in my old boat, James. I remembered grounding on several occasions, so now with a hull six inches deeper, I was a little nervous.

I changed my mind after negotiating the first four locks. I hoped that Orient would ground a little if only to stop the gale from blowing me into the offside reeds. I decided that I’d had enough and looked for a decent spot to moor in the next short pound. I developed a cunning plan.

The wind was blowing so hard off the towpath that I knew the second I stepped off my rear deck Orient would be off cruising on her own. I left my boat in the lock, found a decent place to moor and wrapped a mooring chain around the Armco barrier. ‘Clever me,’ I thought. Now I could jump onto the towpath as soon as my stern was close enough and tie off my centre line to stop Orient racing into the offside shrubbery.

Not so smart, actually. As soon as I jumped onto the muddy path, Orient was off like a racing greyhound. By the time I managed to get a rope loop through the mooring ring, Orient’s bow had joined the rats in their offside burrows.

Trying to moor on a windy day

Trying to moor on a windy day

I switched to Plan B. I removed my stern line, skated along my narrow gunnel with muddy wellies, slipped onto my rain-slicked bow and tied my stern and bow lines together. I hoped that I would be able to throw the long line to the towpath and then pull my bow over to the bank and a waiting mooring ring. If only I had someone to help me.

I thought my prayer had been answered. A father with his teenage son strolled by and stopped to chat. ‘Bit windy,’ he offered as I hurled my rope towards him and the distant bank. ‘Blimey,’ he exclaimed as he turned to his son. ‘That must be tough work on his own!’ The pair wandered off then, so they didn’t see me break down in tears.

Fortunately, I didn’t need them. Mooring took me half an hour, but I got there in the end, and all the hard work was worthwhile. I had a clear view of the valley beneath me and very few passing boats or walkers to spoil my tranquillity.

I enjoyed the spot so much that I stayed for eight days.

The silver lining to our current lockdown is, for me, the chance to enjoy life at a much slower pace than I’ve ever done before. I planned to cruise extensively during my two-month break, north along the Oxford Canal, and Coventry onto the Trent & Mersey, then east to Mercia marina. I planned to stop there to metaphorically and literally recharge my batteries. Then I hoped to cruise to the Trent & Mersey’s northern terminus with a brief diversion onto the Weaver. I haven’t unleashed Orient’s full twenty-one horses on a waterway yet, so this would be an opportunity to reach a previously unattainable 4 mph.

I’m pleased that the lockdown has forced me to adopt a slower life pace. I think the restrictions have saved me from getting into trouble. My route to Mercia marina has been blocked three times this month by floodwater. My River Weaver plans would have been scuppered by bank bursting and the Anderton Lift breakdown. I also thought I might pop in to see the good folk I met at Tattenhall marina when I bought Orient. The breach at Beeston Iron Lock would have caused me no end of problems, possibly marooning me in Cheshire past my planned return to work in March. Thank you, Boris.

So, rather than standing on my little back deck from dawn till dusk cruising hundreds of miles I’ve averaged half a mile a day in January. But by moving less, I’ve discovered more about my local countryside than I’ve done in the last decade.

I’ve downloaded the excellent Ordnance Survey app and invested in an annual subscription. The Landranger map overlay shows me footpaths I can use to explore the countryside wherever I stop. I’ve hiked through hidden woods, explored the sites of abandoned medieval villages, examined crumbling ruins and slipped and slid through muddy fields. Unlimited exercise, endless wonder, all for the price of a couple of bags of coal.

Not all of the exercise I’ve been doing has been fun.

I moored for a week in a deserted pound above the fourth lock in Napton’s seven lock flight. I could have squeezed into a tight space on a muddy towpath on the visitor moorings beneath the flight. Still, I didn’t want to moor bow to stern in a long line with other liveaboard boaters. But the space and tranquillity I found halfway up the flight came at a price.

Walking a mile for grocery shopping at Napton village post office wasn’t a problem. Walking half a mile to the Elsan point with a full cassette was hard work. So much so that, after sliding down a snow-covered towpath with my third 401b cassette of the week, I decided to change my toilet.

I had a composting toilet, an Airhead Compact, for the last eighteen months I owned my first narrowboat, James No 194. I loved the flexibility it gave me. I could stay for weeks away from CRT facilities without needing to worry about toilet tank capacity.

A cassette toilet holds all of its putrefying waste in a single container which has to be transported to and emptied in an Elsan point. A twenty-litre cassette lasts two days for a couple, four for a solo boater like me. As I discovered in Napton, transporting a heavy cassette from a remote mooring to a distant Elsan point is a tear-inducing exercise.

Discover Life Afloat On A Rural Warwickshire Canal Cruise

Join me on beautiful Orient for a day of discovery and helmsman training. You'll learn what makes the perfect live aboard narrowboat as you helm my 62' floating home through rolling hills and six wide locks. Find out what living on England's inland waterways is really like.

Composting toilets change all that. The loo usually has two different compartments; one for solids, the other for liquids. The Environment Agency allows compost toilet owners to empty their urine containers outside providing they do so at least ten metres from the nearest watercourse, so that’s what I used to do. That left just the solids to deal with. Providing I bagged and binned my toilet tissue, the solids container would only need emptying once a month.

The solids don’t compost in a month so could choose one of two options. I could carry a couple of spare solids containers on the boat and leave my rotting remains in them for a couple of months until the compost was fit for feeding my vegetables. Alternatively, I could tip the stuff into a biodegradable bag and consign it to a landfill.

There are endless comments on forums and Facebook groups about the harm compost toilet owners do to the environment by consigning part-composted human waste to landfills. Compared with an estimated three BILLION nappies and thirteen BILLION dog poo bags buried in landfills each year, monthly composting loo deposits in biodegradable bags made by a small number of narrowboat owners are going to make very little difference. And, unlike dump-through and cassette toilet holding tanks, there are no harmful chemicals involved.

Snow place like home

Snow place like home

I decided to move on after a final cassette carrying chore on my eighth day. After four days of heavy snow, sub-zero overnight lows and thick ice, the weather took a turn for the better. There was no sign of canal ice on my final Napton toilet trek. The snow had disappeared too, apart from the deflated remains of a once-proud snowman. I walked a little way along the cut beneath the flight as a final check. Mallards and swans swam happily through muddy water. I was free to cruise again… for two locks.

A sensible person would maybe think about checking the canal’s condition in the direction they hoped to go rather than where they’d been. I clearly don’t fit into that category.

I set the first lock as I whistled happily to myself, comfortable wearing a thin fleece after weeks wrapped in a duck down jacket. I left Orient in the first lock and sauntered jauntily along the slippery towpath to prepare the next lock and saw, to my dismay, a solid ice sheet stretching to a far bend.

I know from painful experience how quickly even the thinnest icy crust can strip away protective hull paint. With nowhere to moor in the short pound beneath me, I brought Orient into the final lock, grabbed my wooden boat pole and gave the ice an exploratory prod.

Running water at the lock’s entrance morphed into a quarter-inch, half an inch and then a full hull-stripping inch. I resigned myself to a night on the lock landing and smashed a path with my boat pole for Orient to follow. And broke my wooden in half. Ah, well. Time to buy another.

I was just finishing my path pounding when I heard a labouring two-cylinder engine approaching. I could also hear ice squeaking, cracking and tinkling. The gleaming steel of a bitumen-free bow appeared around the distant bend forcing a path through the frozen waterway.

The ice was so thick in parts that the ice breaker frequently ground to a halt. The helmsman reversed, stamped on his narrowboat accelerator and repeatedly crashed into the ice blocking his route. His wife walked towards me, wincing each time her home screeched to a halt, while toddler at her feet clapped his hands with joy.

They’d been flighting ice since dawn, determined to reach Braunston and an essential repair to their broken central heating system. This was their third day with nothing but their galley hob to keep them warm. All three wrapped like mummies shivered violently.

Love them or hate them, a solid fuel stove is your narrowboat get-out-of-jail-free card. These stoves rarely let you down. Flues can rot and block, but with regular maintenance, they’re not going to let you down when you need them most. I like multi-fuel stoves so much, I have two!

I helped the shivering trio through the lock, moved Orient through the recently broken ice away from the lock landing and moored for the night. I covered a third of a mile on my ninety-minute cruise. I could have continued, following the trail of recently broken ice, but I’ve discovered through bitter experience that cruising through fractured ice can still strip the waterline back to bare steel.

The temperature rose throughout the day and night, returning the canal to its usual muddy brown. As the thermometer rose, so did the canal’s water level and the wind.

Plenty of water on the South Oxford

Plenty of water on the South Oxford

Water cascaded over the lock gates, which pleased me immensely. I was so happy I almost stopped worrying about the South Oxford’s shallow depth and the likelihood of Orient’s fat bottom getting stuck in the mud.

A crafty way to avoid a waterways license?

A crafty way to avoid a waterways license?

I cruised slowly from Marston Doles along a peaceful waterway, silent apart from a brief chainsaw buzz and boat-mounted wood chipper rattle. CRT’s waterways maintenance is subject to constant social media criticism. Maybe those internet trolls should get out on the cut more and see the continuous hard work being done cutting back overgrown vegetation and maintaining and repairing locks. All I see is meticulous attention to detail and consideration for passing boaters. Thank you, guys!

Not wanting to break the sloth-like cruising regime I’ve developed over the last month, I found a remote, tranquil and beautiful spot near Priors Hardwick to moor two and a half hours into my cruising day. Besides moving two hundred metres towards all-day solar panel sunlight, I’ve been stationary for the last three days, and I plan to remain here for the week to come.

Hoping for rain on an increasingly dry South Oxford Canal

Hoping for rain on an increasingly dry South Oxford Canal

If you fancy some real peace and quiet and a complete escape from people and modern-day pressure, I can’t recommend this spot on the South Oxford at this time of the year highly enough. Neither people nor boats have passed me in the last four days. I haven’t seen a car, train, plane or even a tractor since I’ve been here. My only companions are the wind in the willows and two buzzards soaring high above me. My mooring is perfect, apart from my list.

I cruised here on a canal filled to the brim by recent heavy rain. The rain stopped, and the water dropped to what I suspect is its average winter level. My starboard side is sitting in silt, tipping my port side into the canal centre’s deeper water.

My list disappeared briefly yesterday after eight hours of heavy sleet and snow. I’m sloping again now, so much that my bedroom door swings shut if I don’t wedge it open and I can only cook eggs on one side of my frying pan. I’m so used to walking on a slope now that I’m like a mountain goat, only not quite so attractive.

I hope the water level doesn’t drop any further. There’s no more rain forecast for the next week, but I need to move before next weekend. I will have run out of food, coal and toilet tank capacity by then.

Please join me in a prayer for heavy rain.

Discovery Day Update

Winter and, hopefully, our government’s lockdown restrictions are drawing to a close. Spring and the start of a new cruising season are on their way. With more and more people thinking about better weather and the opportunity to travel extensively in the UK again my Discovery Day calendar is filling quickly. Apart from one recent mid-March cancellation I’m now fully booked until mid-May. 

I currently restrict my Discovery Day cruises to weekends because of my work commitments at Calcutt Boats. If you want to secure a late spring date, please consider booking now. You can read more about my Discovery Day cruises here and see and book available dates here

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Paul Smith

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.