Unexpected Canal Dredging And Another Remote Icy Mooring

I mentioned towards the end of my last post the worrying list I developed on the South Oxford canal’s summit pound. My attempt to cruise this through route to Oxford and the River Thames didn’t end well.

I moored for five days at Priors Hardwick. It’s the most tranquil place I’ve ever stopped. I had a view to die for, no passing boats for five days, no dog walkers or hikers… nothing and no one to disturb the tranquillity. But I can understand why the canal isn’t used as often as other local routes.

I climbed the last three locks of the Napton flight after several days of heavy rain, snow and sleet. There was so much water on the summit pound that it flowed over the top lock’s upstream gates. Needless to say, I didn’t have any problems with the canal depth on my hour cruise to Priors Hardwick. But over the next few days, the water level slowly dropped until Orient sat on mud next to the towpath, allowing the port side to drop slowly towards the canal centre.

A sharp crack from my stern mooring chain woke me at dawn on my sixth day. Orient shuddered and groaned as her hull slid another inch closer to the main channel. I leapt out of bed, twisted my ankle and fell over. Orient listed to such a degree that many of my starboard cupboard doors had swung open, and I couldn’t stand anything on my kitchen worktop. My calf muscles ached as they countered the steeply sloping cabin floor, but my legs didn’t hurt as much as my head as I started to worry.

My fertile imagination doesn’t help me when things like this happen. I had visions of my home turning turtle or me trapped on the canal for weeks waiting for the next downpour. I wondered if there had been a breach which would see Orient beached on a thin ribbon of deep noxious mud. I considered the logistics of living on a waterless canal for months until CRT raised the millions of pounds necessary to repair the damage. I felt so anxious I began to hyperventilate. I knew that worrying about staying would drive me mad, so I knew I had to move. But then I feared that Orient would ground immovably on the shallow canal, blocking any through route for other boaters. Damned if I moved, cursed if I didn’t.

I decided that leaving was the lesser of two evils. I filled my Thermos travel mug with honey-sweetened fresh ground coffee, took a deep breath and began what I suspected would be a long and gruelling day. I wanted to retrace my steps, drop down the nine locks of the Napton and Marston Doles flights where I could rejoin the Grand Union Canal and deeper water. The nearest place I could turn Orient was at Fenny Compton, four shallow and twisting miles ahead of me. I wasn’t looking forward to the cruise.

With my stern glued to the canal-side mud, pushing Orient off my mooring took half an exhausting hour. Reversing didn’t work, nor did using my pole to lever my boat away from the towpath. I tried every combination known to the inland waterways and then resorted to stamping my feet and trying to kick my home into the middle of the cut. Orient eventually slid into deeper water and regained an even keel. I briefly considered anchoring in the canal centre until more rain fell, but spun my speed wheel instead and pushed my bow through clinging mud towards Fenny Compton.

Reaching Fenny Compton took four exhausting hours. I bumped over rocks, slid on stone and grounded frequently on muddy banks. I became hypersensitive to my engine’s slow beat. When my propeller clawed at shallow mud banks, my Lister groaned and laboured. Twenty-two tonnes of steel ground to a halt and, once more, I thrust my overworked pole into the canal bed.

I heaved, thrust, levered and cursed in equal measures. Sometimes the hull centre rather than the stern caught raised mudflats on shallow bends. Attempting to push the stern into deeper water grounded my bow. I would edge nervously along my gunnel, carefully sidestep my bow cratch cover to stand on the rain-slicked bow. Planting the far end of my pole into the soft canal bank I would then push with all my might. The pole plunged deep into the mud more often than not, so I then had to try heaving it out without doing a backward summersault into the canal. After a while the bow would swing slowly away from the bank and, like a sixty feet long compass needle, the stern would swing back towards it and onto the mud again. Each grounding was a backbreaking, exhausting and frustrating affair.

My pole, recently refurbished with two coats of back gloss, finished the day looking like a chewed toothpick, twelve inches shorter, paint-free and as knackered as me.

I arrived at Fenny Compton exhausted, turned Orient and prepared myself for another passage of the same route. Although the thought of the return journey filled me with dread, I didn’t want to stay another night in case the water level dropped further.

The return trip was even more painful. I hated the canal, loathed the inland waterways and detested my deep draughted boat. I grounded so hard at one point and put so much effort into getting myself off that I felt giddy. But I couldn’t pull over for a break in case I grounded again. I left Orient skewed across the canal and abandoned the helm to refill my coffee mug. I hadn’t seen a moving boat for nearly a week, so there was no need to hurry.

I reached Marston Doles Top Lock at 5.30 pm as the night engulfed the canal. I had rarely worked so hard or felt as happy and relieved to reach a destination. I apologised to Orient for all of the bad things I’d said about her during the day and stroked my engine for a while to show my appreciation and hoped that the old girl forgave me. It was just a lover’s spat.

I don’t think I’ll be attempting the South Oxford in this boat again. It’s a stunningly beautiful canal, but the experience is spoiled by the logistics involved in getting a deep craft from one end to the other. What’s more, there’s even less water in the South Oxford during the summer months. There’s often so little water in the summit pound during the summer that lock passages through the Napton flight are restricted to a few hours each day.

Leaving the South Oxford canal to find deeper water

Leaving the South Oxford canal to find deeper water


Experience Life Afloat

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I returned to my muddy mooring halfway down the Napton flight for a couple of days, then dropped down the remaining three locks to the service point near The Folly pub. Despite the challenging twelve months since the pandemic restrictions paralysed the pub trade, Napton’s gregarious pub landlord had tradesmen busily repairing his roof and improving his garden. I hope that this year is easier for our struggling pub, cafe and restaurant owners. I consider myself blessed to be in the fortunate position where I continue to earn an income, whether back at the marina or out on the cut.

Even so, I began my two-month work break feeling like a wild animal locked into a small and claustrophobic cage. I wanted to range far and wide, enjoy new experiences, see new sights, live life to the full. I felt cheated by fate, unable to travel to Australia and my family and then barred from unnecessary canal cruising. But the dark cloud had a bright silver lining.

I’m usually hopeless at resting. I look for any opportunity to fill free time with hard labour. I left my marina work behind in 2015 in favour of a carefree continuous cruising lifestyle. I approached my new freedom like a bull at a gate, hurtling along England’s inland waterways on ten, twelve, fourteen hour cruising days. I made a mental note of the dozens of idyllic moorings or quaint villages I passed, promising that I would stop and explore them when I had time. I never did.

The lockdown travel restrictions have forced me to slow down. I’ve spent the last ten days on the same remote towpath mooring, untroubled by people, traffic or mainstream life. I’ve had time to write, think, read and wander through England’s beautiful countryside without a care in the world. I’m going to have a bumper sticker made for my boat – ‘Loving Lockdown Lethargy’. I am at peace with the world, at one with nature, loving my lifestyle and the boaters who share it with me.

My nearest neighbour is a mile away

My nearest neighbour is a mile away

Most of them anyway.

I’m going to scream if I see another video featuring a smug boater clad in little more than saggy Y fronts while snow falls and ice forms outside. They either have the constitutions of polar bears or insulation borrowed from space ships. I have neither.

I climbed out of bed on Wednesday for my usual middle of the night toilet visit. I then checked the cabin temperature as is my habit. The display showed -5°C outside. Ice crackling against my hull confirmed the reading’s accuracy, as did the reading next to my burning stove. I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that 8°C is an appropriate cabin temperature for lounging around in underwear. My bedroom thermometer read 4°C, and the one in my unheated boatman’s cabin showed 0°C. I immediately worried about my engine, of course, so I wedged the top section of the stable door between my bedroom and engine room open. This allowed ‘warm’ air to flow from my bedroom into the engine room and cold air to fill my already chilly bedroom.

Still, I had blankets, gloves and a coat, so I survived the night. I had both stoves blazing by 9 am the following morning and a comfortable 23°C throughout the cabin. I don’t want you to think that I’m moaning about my miserable existence. I’m not, I love my boat and the lifestyle I lead. I just don’t want you to think that all narrowboats are so warm all of the time that you need to throw all of your windows and doors open to let the heat out.

Icebound boat blocking the canal at Braunston

Icebound boat blocking the canal at Braunston

If you buy an older boat with polystyrene insulation, interior bulkheads and draughty hopper windows, you’ll have far more of a challenge keeping your boat warm than on a modern narrowboat with decent insulation and an open plan layout.

While my boat’s heat retention might not be all I want, I couldn’t hope for a better performance from my new solar array. The three 215W solar panels struggled to produce any meaningful power in November or December. They’re making up for it now though.

I haven’t needed to run my engine for battery charging for the last ten days. I feel sorry for my Lister. I don’t need to use it to generate electricity, and I can’t use it to move my home. I’m surrounded by ice thick enough to peel the paint off my hull as quickly as the skin off a Scot on his second day in Benidorm. But despite not wanting to move, I have to reach Braunston soon.

I have a couple of wees left in the last of my three cassettes, but nothing else is a problem. I’ve just switched to my spare 13kg propane cylinder. That should last me for another couple of months. I have enough coal to keep me going until the end of this month and enough water for another six weeks.

Who are you looking at?

Who are you looking at? Spring lambs on my walk into Braunston

Food isn’t a problem either. I chose this mooring because it’s tranquil and, because it’s miles from anywhere, the location encourages me to exercise. The nearest shops, Braunston’s little grocery store and butcher opposite are two and a half miles away along the canal or through fields past the site of Wolfhampcote village. I go there every day to keep blood pumping around my ageing body. Sainsbury delivers groceries to me at Braunston’s Boathouse pub car park whenever I need things I can’t buy locally. I’m as well provisioned on this remote mooring as I am back on my marina mooring. The only weak link in my off-grid lifestyle now is my toilet.

Icebound boat blocking the canal at Braunston

Icebound boat blocking the canal at Braunston

My Compoost composting toilet should be ready for delivery in mid-May. That’s not going to help me now, but I’ll be entirely self-sufficient for any future off-grid adventures. The solids container will allow me to stay away from stinky Elsan points forever.

I’m looking forward to that day.

I’ve gone off-piste there. I was discussing solar arrays. I’ve now added the second part of a detailed three-part solar system post I linked to last month. I hope that you’ll read what Onboard Solar’s Tim Davis has written if you’re considering buying a narrowboat, or if you currently have a narrowboat but don’t yet have solar power.

There’s nothing in this for me. Tim hasn’t paid me to advertise his service, nor am I on commission. I just think that solar on a narrowboat is an absolute game-changer, even if you only use your boat for leisure cruising. Electricity generation and management are two of the most challenging aspects of living afloat. Solar power virtually eliminates this worry.

An optimistic Roving Trader in Braunston

An optimistic Roving Trader in Braunston – I didn’t see anyone on the towpath on a two-hour walk but this guy was still open for business!

Tim has fitted solar arrays on both my narrowboats. He is the consummate professional who installs high-quality systems exceptionally well. I’ve not come across many inland waterways tradesmen to shout about, but Tim is one of the best. You can read part two of his guide to narrowboat solar power here. Part one is linked from the top of the post.

Right, I’m off for a wee. I’m not going to use the precious space in my cassette, so guess I’ll have to brave the Arctic gale to reach the towpath hedge again.

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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.