Monday, 16 September 2013

Berkhamsted to Stoke Bruerne

Berkhamsted is a lovely town and we were reluctant to move on however there was still so much to see and do, and in addition, our water tank was running very low. It was time! Mid-afternoon on Monday 5th August with the sun beating down, we pulled up the mooring pins and set off through lock 53. Mark Emery from narrowboat Liberty had said that he would be joining us but he had been delayed on the M25 so once again Ian and I worked the locks with the two boats - single handed. Only a few yards beyond lock 53 we saw a water point alongside the park. This had not been marked in the Nicholson Waterways Guide, and we hadn't spotted it while we were exploring, or we wouldn't have let the water tank run so low. Never mind, I made a mental note for 'next time' and we moved on without stopping; we had another 7 locks to work before our next planned stop at Cowroast - but there was a lesson to be learned first.

A few spots of rain turned into a light drizzle indicating that we may need a rain coat and by the time we reached lock 51 (Gas Lock 1) the rain was a steady downpour. 10 minutes and another lock later, the heavens opened and we were soaked in the deluge. This was not funny. With still another 5 locks to work before Cowroast, we decided to moor up the two boats and dry out. Water water everywhere but not a drop to drink - although we were soaked, our on-board water supply was critical. In future, we will NOT pass a water point when we have less than a day's supply on board!

Mark caught up with us at this point and he too, was soaked through. I made a hearty supper and we all had a glass of something and soon forgot the discomfort, but we knew that in the morning we had to set off and reach Cowroast before we could have a shower.

Tuesday, the day dawned bright and sunny once more. The only sign of the previous day's deluge was a slightly muddy towpath. With Mark on Narrowboat Liberty and Ian and I on Winedown, we worked the last few locks and reached the summit at Cowroast easily. After filling our water tank, disposing of rubbish and refreshing the loo cassette, we were thankfully back in control once again.

The canal continued on through a long wooded cutting near Tring before opening out again towards the hamlet of Bulbourne. The cool shade of this cutting is so quintessentially English, that it reminds me of my grandmother's words of wisdom spoken while we were living in Rhodesia. "No matter where you go, England is in your blood and England WILL call you home." How right she was!

At Bulbourne we passed the old BW Workshops where once traditional wooded lockgate making was carried out. These are now being used as ironworks, making decorative house and garden sculptures.

Beyond Bulbourne, the canal divides with the Wendover arm of the Grand Union canal veering off to the west while we continued on into the first of the Marsworth locks. The 7 locks in the Marsworth flight wind down the hill and past the reservoirs to Startops End. It was here that I noticed an interesting double arched bridge and it was here that we moored for the night. Mark's daughter Natalie and her friend, Heidi joined us for dinner at the pub.

The next day, Wednesday, promised to be a good day for boating again. After egg and bacon butties for breakfast, we continued on to the Marsworth Junction where the main line bears round to the north east while the Aylesbury Arm branches off to the west. There was another double arched bridge and we found that from marsworth to Stoke Bruerne, 33 miles to the north, the bridges were the same. This type of bridge was built by the Grand Junction Canal Company with the expectation that the locks would be paired to increase the flow of traffic and alleviate the bottlenecks, but the program was never completed due to a decline in number of working-boats.

Leaving Marsworth behind, the canal falls gradually away from the Chilterns. As the hills give way to open grassland, the canal becomes more and more remote with the locks in attractive settings.
As we passed through Horton and Slapton locks, Mark pointed out the 480ft long Whipsnade White Lion that was cut into the chalky Dunstable Downs in 1935.

As the afternoon drew on, we moored beyond Church Lock (29) near Grove for the night. The peaceful setting gave up a wonderful sunset and the waterfowl were quite entertaining as they defended their territory.

As a biased Englishman (Englishwoman) I can say with certainty that there are few places in the world that would compare to the peace and tranquillity of this remote part of the English countryside beside the canal.

Mid-morning on Thursday 8th August, we pulled up the mooring pins and continued Northwards towards the market town of Leighton Buzzard and Linslade. Here the canal acts as a boundary between the two joined towns before opening out into the Ouzel river valley.

The Grove Lock pub set in the extended lock keeper's cottage sat alongside the first lock of the day and its beautiful hanging baskets made it quite picturesque. Too early for a pint, we continued on, the low towpath hedge allowed us splendid views of this beautiful valley.

The glorious summer day continued as we worked the Soulbury three locks near Stoke Hammond and the Three Locks pub provided a lovely backdrop as well as reminding us that there is nothing better than a pint, enjoyed in the warm afternoon sunshine. The pleasant smell of vinegar on hot fried chips followed us as the friendly, chatty Canal & River Trust volunteers helped us through the flight with the pub patrons looking on.

It wasn't long before we decided to call it a day and we moored near Stoke Hammond bridge before enjoying our own snacks and small libation.

With open countryside to one side and the expanding town of Bletchley on the other we slowly approached the outskirts of Milton Keynes. The town of Bletchley which is now part of expanding Milton Keynes was once an agricultural and lace-making town before it swallowed up its neighbour, Fenny Stratford. At Fenny Stratford lock we took on fresh water before tackling the 10 mile pound around Milton Keynes, where old meets new. Some of the old bridges still bear the marks where countless horse tow-ropes have cut groves into the cast iron wear-strip; while the new bridges wear graffiti as a form of decoration.

In places, Milton Keynes embraces the canal that meanders around it, providing an excellent gravel or tarmac tow-path, while in other places, canal-side pubs such as the Peartree turn an unfriendly face towards the canal demonstrated by the huge 'No-Mooring' signs along the pub garden fence and the main building.

The 10 miles without a lock seemed endless as parkland gave way to modern housing, which in turn gave way to open green fields, before once again changing to gardens hidden behind high wooden fencing.

We wanted to put Milton Keynes behind us before we stopped for the day so we chose to over-night at the Great Ouse Aqueduct near Old Wolverton at the end of the 10 mile pound.

Although this is a popular spot, there is plenty of mooring with a wide towpath and the atmosphere is very sociable. There are some lovely walks around the Great Ouse Aqueduct for those who feel so inclined.

Mark joined us for bacon butties before we moved off again on Saturday morning. I am sure that I have said this before, but we have had a terrific summer this year and the lovely days continued as we made our way to Stoke Bruerne in southern Northamptonshire.

Although this village is small, it's certainly big on things to do if you are a canal enthusiast. The canal museum is not to be missed and neither are the canal-side pubs. We made certain to leave ourselves plenty of time to explore the surrounds and catch up with people we had met along the way - Katherine in particular.

We first met Katherine on nb Leo at Brentford when we were en-route to the IWA festival at Watford. She was travelling with boat club members among whom were Mike and Jeanette on nb Paper Moon. Unfortunately, Katherine's boat developed an electrical problem and she had to wait for repairs but we saw her again at the festival. In conversation, she told us how she had been lucky enough to buy one of the canal-side cottages at Stoke Bruerne and shortly after we arrived we saw her leaning against the door frame of the cottage gongoozleing (a term given to a canal-side idler/gawker).

Stoke Bruerne was also the home of Mary Ward; nurse, midwife and even scribe to the boat people of the waterways, and a significant figure in the history of the British canal system. Her heart-warming story is told in the museum.

Initially, we moored both boats on the visitor mooring before lock 15, adjacent to Stoke Park. Ian and I had arranged to meet my mother and her gentleman friend in Stoke Bruerne so it was here that we said a fond farewell to Mark and his son, Sam, who had joined him at Stoke Bruerne.

After helping them through lock 14, I was sad to see them round the corner of the canal on their way to the Blisworth tunnel. It was especially sad and a poignant moment for me as I missed Sally's cheerful face and resounding laugh. Sally (Mark's wife)had been taken from us all only a few weeks before as a result of a car accident. A reminder of how fragile life is.