Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Coventry Canal, (Birmingham & Fazeley) and the Ashby Canal

It was a little confusing after leaving Fradley Junction. We were on the Coventry Canal but some way down the canal it's name changed to the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal then at Fazeley Junction, changed back to the Coventry Canal. I don't like confusion so I went in search of the reason.

At Fazeley Junction, the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal meets the Coventry Canal. Originally, the Coventry Canal was to continue beyond Fazeley Junction in a north-westerly direction towards the Trent & Mersey Canal at Fradley, but the Coventry Company ran out of funds at Fazeley. The Birmingham & Fazeley Canal extended along a similar line towards Whittington Brook while the Grand Trunk Canal Company (as it was at the time) built the link from Fradley. At a later stage, the Coventry Company bought the link from Fradley Junction to Whittington, but did not buy the link from Whittington to Fazeley. Between Whittington Bridge and Bridge 78 you can see the stone pictured here that marks the point where the two canals join. Still confused? Never mind, enjoy the canal anyway!

From Fradley, the canal passes through flat, open countryside before it skirts Whittington where some back gardens reach all the way down to the canal. It was along here that you can see some lovely, well-kept gardens.

Just beyond Whittington, is a wooded stretch that covers the side of Hopwas Hill and it was along here that we noticed the first signs of Autumn.

After leaving the boat in Fazeley Mill Marina for a few days while we looked after our granddaughter, Hollie, we continued along the Coventry Canal, where we passed a number of reclaimed slag heaps at Pooley Hall. A reminder of its mining industry which began operating around 1846. There is now a heritage centre on the site of the old colliery which provides an insight into the mining history.

The river Anker converges with the canal at Atherston bottom lock flight and we began the climb through the 11 locks that make up the Atherston flight, climbing through open countryside, allotments and housing before reaching Atherston Top Lock.

We took our time, appreciating the beautiful, tranquil morning, before it changed to a busy, bustle of town life.

At Atherston Top Lock, we disposed of rubbish at the sanitary station before continuing on towards Nuneaton, Bedworth and Hawkesbury Junction.

Also know as Sutton's Stop (named after the Toll Clerk), Hawkesbury Junction is a busy canal centre and junction between the Coventry and Oxford Canals. The iconic, disused engine house was once used to pump water up into the canal from a well. The steam engine, install in 1821, was called Lady Godiva and stopped work nearly a hundred years later in 1913. Lady Godiva now rests in the Dartmouth Museum

We continued along the Coventry Canal into the heart of the city of Coventry.

The branch line started off well enough as you leave Hawsbury Junction, with charming sculptures on the first few bridges and a wide towpath. Attractive, well-kept green verges gave way to lovely views over the park.

Some beautifully manicured gardens that backed onto the canal gave an indication of pride, but all that didn't last.

Needless to say, I didn't much like the branch line into Coventry Basin. It's certainly not the most inspiring part of the canal. About a mile and a half in, and the canal was dirty, with rubbish everywhere. Broken wooden fences replaced the well-kept gardens, and dirty houses hid in shame behind piles of junk. Industry encroaches, but not in a sympathetic way. As the canal passed through the outskirts of Coventry, I began to wonder why we had journeyed this way.

As if to redeem itself, towards the basin and just before bridge 2, there is an elegant row of weavers houses known as the 'Cash Hundred Housing' (although there are only 37 of the original 49 left) In days gone by, living accommodation would have taken up the lower two floors and the upper floor with its large windows would have been where the looms were, driven by a steam engine.

Another 3/4 of a mile later, the canal terminates in a basin (with plenty of mooring) overlooked  by tall buildings and old wooden warehouses.

Coventry is the home of motor manufacturing and the birthplace of such iconic makes as Daimler, Jaguar, Triumph, not to mention Massey Ferguson, so a trip to the Transport Museum is not to be missed.

During WWII Coventry's industries turned to the production of material for the war effort which made it a target for enemy bombing and on 14th November 1940, during a night air-raid, reported to be the most prolonged and devastating attack on any city in history, the city was all but destroyed. The devastation was so complete that Germany coined a new word 'Coventrated' meaning the destruction of a city from the air.

Among the ruins was of course the cathedral. By the end of the attack, all that remained was a shell full of rubble, the tower and the spire. Even in those  times of utter despair, some found the ability to forgive. From the ruins of the cathedral, nails were collected and fashioned into crosses. These crosses of nails have been presented as symbols of peace to Kings, Queens, Bishops and all manner of spiritual leaders around the world. As a result, Coventry has become known as the' Reconciliation Centre of the World'.

But on a more historical note, Coventry is reported to be the home of Lady Godiva - or to be more exact, Countess Godiva or rather Godgifu (pronounced Godgivu meaning God's gift) before the name and title was corrupted by history.

Lady Godiva is remembered for her naked ride through the town in order to persuade her husband to lower the crippling taxes imposed on the poor citizens of Coventry. This wonderful story and all its derivatives has spanned the centuries but in truth is unlikely to have happened since Coventry was little more than a hamlet at the time. However, the popular legend remains and still keeps people talking.

Whether or not you are interested in Lady Godiva, Coventry's manufacturing past, the total devastation during World War II or the cathedral of Reconciliation, Coventry is now a burgeoning University City and well worth a visit. But beware; our experience of dining-out was not good. Poor service and a long wait appear to be quite an acceptable order of the day.

We left Coventry behind on Monday 30th September and I could hardly wait to reach Hawkesbury Junction so I immersed myself in housekeeping chores. It was a relief to leave the Coventry canal and breath the fresh air of the Ashby Canal. Quite a contrast.

But before we reached the Ashby, we passed this boatyard.

Boatyard or Junkyard? ....You be the judge!!!

Originally, the Ashby Canal was intended as a route-through from the Coventry Canal near Bedworth to the River Trent at Burton Upon Trent, however this plan was repeatedly shelved. In 1792 the owners of the new coalfields near Ashby de la Zouch and the Leicestershire Limeworks decided that a southbound outlet was required; but it wasn't until 1804 when a new coal mine sunk at Moira, producing an excellent quality of coal that was widely demanded in London and Southern England, that the canal flourished.

The navigable part of the restored Ashby Canal is 22 miles long with no locks; but this shallow canal (maximum 3'6" draught) makes for very slow progress. We managed an average speed of 2 miles per hour; but we were not in any hurry.  Just a word of caution; there were places where the canal was so shallow that we lost steerage and ploughed into the bank. Scars, broken brickwork and transferred paint on some of the bridges indicated that we were not alone in this.

Almost from the moment that the Ashby canal left the Coventry Canal at Marston Junction, the scenery changed dramatically. The industry and housing estates that marked the Coventry Canal disappeared, to be replaced by green fields, trees and farms. The typical stone-arched bridges were evident from the start.

A long wooded cutting drew us on towards the typically farming village of Burton Hastings and my spirits soared as we gently made our way through this beautiful countryside.

Although the weather was becoming ever more autumnal and the temperatures were dropping to the mid-teens, it couldn't detract from our pleasure...

... and I enjoyed walking along this remote and rural canal and gathering blackberries while Ian was never far away.

We stopped at bridge 23 where a farm shop, set a little way back from the canal, sold fresh produce, eggs, bread & milk and meat. We bought some excellent sausages as well as a delicious pork pie!

Passing Stoke Golding, the canal meandered around Dadlington and eased its way towards Sutton Cheney Wharf where there is a sanitary station and  are full service facilities.

One point to note with regard to the Ashby Canal, services that accommodate waste disposal are few and far between while water points are plentiful.

We passed bridge 35 and negotiated the sharp turns before mooring near Shenton Aqueduct. We wanted to spend time at the nearby Bosworth Battlefield and Visitor Centre. If you are interested in the history of our country, this is not to be missed. It is the site of national historical significance and is the location of one of the three most important battles fought on British soil.

The Battle of Bosworth was fought on August 22nd 1485 and it was on this battlefield that King Richard III (the last Plantagenate King) lost his life and his crown, and brought an end to the War of the Roses.  Henry Tudor, the victor became the next king of England and this gave rise to the powerful Tudor Dynasty that spawned  Henry VIII, Bloody Mary, and Elizabeth I.

At the top of Ambion Hill, near the Battlefield Heritage Centre, this stunning walk-through sundial features the thrones of Richard III, Henry Tudor and the treacherous Lord Stanley, the three principal players to this dramatic turn in history.

I hardly need to say that we had a fantastic day!

Then, with autumn leaves falling, we made our way to Snarestone and the end of the Ashby Canal Navigation.

Snarestone sits on a ridge at right angles to the canal which in turn passes under the village through a crooked 250yds tunnel, the only tunnel on the canal.
Emerging from the tunnel, we passed a further two stone-arched bridges  before the canal terminated.

There are 48hr moorings at the canal terminus (and a sanitary station) so moored for the night.

A few hours later, as the sun was sinking in the sky, we were treated to a wonderful photo opportunity. The liquid-golden sun shone through the bridge and over the fields, bathing them in a magnificent glow. I was enchanted, and simply couldn't capture the beauty of it all on film.

We stayed the full 48 hours in Snarestone to make the most of it. We took a bus (the bus stop is outside the Globe pub) into Ashby de la Zouch on Saturday and enjoyed a lovely pub lunch at The Globe on Sunday.

All too soon, it was time to leave Snarestone and return down this idyllic, rural canal towards Trinity Marina where we were to leave the boat for a few days, stopping at the market town of Market Bosworth on the way back. We met friends Jackie and John for dinner at the Red Lion, one of the two oldest buildings in the town which dates back to 14th Century.

We left Trinity Marina and the lovely Ashby Canal on Tuesday 15th October for the last leg of our 2013 adventure as we headed down the Oxford Canal towards our winter moorings at Barby Marina.

Author's note ***

Ian laughed at the numerous mentions of 'Sanitary Stations....'
When boaters get together there are three topics that are always discussed...
1) How waste is disposed of - and where;
2) How waste is stored on your boat;
3) What sort of heating do you have;
So it should not be a surprise that I frequently mention such an important topic!

Monday, 7 October 2013

Trent & Mersey to Fradley Junction

Leaving Kegworth shallow lock behind on Monday 2nd September, we completed the last 3 mile stretch of the Grand Union canal as we headed towards the River Trent. There was just one lock - Ratcliffe Lock (58) before the Redhill Flood Lock which brought us back onto the River Soar. The huge chimney of the Ratcliffe Power Station totally dominates the landscape for miles around.

As we turned to go downstream on the River Trent, I realised that we were leaving Leicestershire behind and moving into Derbyshire. The confluence of the River Soar and the River Trent would be the northernmost point that we would go this year. We had wanted to explore the Erewash canal but unfortunately the canal is too shallow for Winedown; the Erewash allows for a maximum draught of 2'6" while Winedown draws 2'10". The best I could do was take a photograph as we passed by Trent Lock, the gateway to the Erewash.
Then it was on to Sawley Cut almost a mile along the River Trent. Entry to the cut is via a pair of mechanically operated locks, however I must just say that on approaching the locks, I had to be quite nimble to clamber up to 'ground' level with the centre line so that we could tie up and operate the lock. There is a control panel at the side of the lock and its operation is similar to that of the lock-side control panels along the River Thames and at Brentford so we were quite eu fait with its workings. Once through the lock, we moored opposite Sawley marina and headed off into the village.

The area around Sawley is a major canal navigation junction where the Erewas canal and the River Soar reach the Trent and Mersey Canal by way of the River Trent and the Cranfleet Cut, but that is not all; to the north-east is Trent Junction, a five-way meeting point in the national railway system. All that aside, we were attracted by the promise of a beautiful medieval church with lime trees that line the driveway. Should you want to stretch your legs, there are many footpaths around the village that will take walkers through some beautiful countryside.

We usually look after our Granddaughter, Hollie, on alternate Wednesdays but are now finding it difficult to get into Reading and back in the day so we booked temporary moorings and put our boat into Sawley marina for a few days. Visitor rates were reasonable at £8.50 per day which included electrics and access to all the facilities. We then booked a hire car and asked the hire firm (Enterprise) to collect us from the marina which they did obligingly.

Since we were now in Derbyshire, I sent an email to a friend whom I had lost contact with, in the hope that she would respond...and she did!! We agreed to meet up once we arrived at Sawley Marina, and so it was that we spent the best part of the week in and around Sawley, catching up with Jackie and John, before continuing our journey along the Trent and Mersey canal.

While we are at the IWA festival earlier in the year, Ian and I had expressed an interest in the new Brigantine, a 'wide-beam' boat that was to be launched at the show by The New & used Boat Company. Due to unforeseen circumstances, it wasn't launched at the IWA in July and its launch date was postponed to 7th September. We were invited to the launch which was scheduled to take place at Mercia marina, so leaving Sawley behind on Friday 6th September, we headed for the marina near Willington. All that I can remember of that day was that it was very wet and cold. Temperatures fell from the mid-twenties to between 15 and 17 degrees C and the rain fell steadily. We chose a lousy day to do the 12 miles and 7 locks, and to add insult to injury, we moored just before bridge 22 which turned out to be alongside a railway freight yard and it felt as if the freight trains were coming right through the boat all night. It was not a good night to say the least.

We attended the launch of the Brigantine on the Saturday but the boat was not what we had expected. It is a beautiful boat, designed to fill a gap in the marketplace between a Dutch Barge and a wide-beam but at nearly £60 000 more than its wide-beam equivalent, we couldn't get excited so before very much longer, we moved on. By this time it was quite late in the afternoon, and since we didn't want a repeat of the previous night we moved just a few miles down the canal to the Coach and Horses bridge(25) near Willington that was overlooked by these cooling towers.

Sunday was a much better day and we set off for Burton Upon Trent. On entering the town of Burton, the first lock we came to was Dallow lock, just beyond Horinglow basin. This was the first of the narrow locks so we knew that we wouldn't see any wide-beams along this stretch.

We had first visited Burton Upon Trent in 2011 when we attended the IWA festival and had liked it so much we knew we would return. We found people to be very friendly and the residents embraced the canal, taking pride in the towpath that ran alongside their gardens. At the time, we had met a lady named Vera who had made us feel very welcome; she had left quite an impression on us and so it was with these fond memories that we moored up alongside Shobnall Fields. No sooner had we secured our mooring ropes, we saw Vera walking along the opposite side of the canal. How lovely to see and talk to her again after all this time.

Burton Upon Trent is best known for its brewing heritage having been home to over a dozen brewers in its heyday. The water quality allowed for the development of a pale ale which is still brewed today and the canal here partly owes its existence to the breweries. With all this knowledge to hand... a visit to the brewery was the order of the day.

We learned of a unique method of brewing called the 'Union Method' (the beer is brewed in open vats) which is used only for the Pedigree beer; and discovered to our astonishment that Marston's is the home of Hobgoblin.

And of course, the tasting at the end of the tour didn't go amiss either - although mine was a glass of wine!

Well it was time to move on, so after spending 5 days in and around Burton Upon Trent, we pulled up the mooring pins and set off towards Barton-Under-Needwood.

The weather hadn't improved much so we didn't get far, however we did find lovely blackberries along the way. The best way to warm up the boat and lift our damp spirits was to put the oven on so with this in mind, I made a blackberry and apple pie and with the left over fruit, made the blackberry vodka that will continue to 'prove' over the next month or so, to be ready in time for Christmas!

Time to look after Hollie again, so we booked the boat in at the Barton Marina for the time that we would be away. To our astonishment we discovered that this marina had wonderful facilities. Besides the marina type facilities such as water, electrics, waste disposal and a laundry there was also a waterfront. Behind the waterfront is a golf course, access to National Forest footpaths, and a picnic site. What more could you wish for? The waterfront boasts multiple coffee shops, clothing shops, a pub, a food shop called 'The Butcher, The Baker and the Ice-cream Maker' which, as its name suggests sold almost all that you would need food-wise (it was a greengrocer as well) and, (would you believe) a restaurant with a cinema incorporated within it! Since we hadn't been to a cinema in a long while, we booked 'Dinner and a Show' at the restaurant and enjoyed a wonderful evening. No wonder some boaters don't want to leave that marina. I could easily have stayed quite comfortably for another week!

On Friday 20th September (my brother's birthday) we left Barton Under Needwood and headed for Fradley Junction, passing the beautiful, tranquil, village of Alrewas along the way. The canal joins the River Trent before it winds through the pretty village.

There was a bit of a bottleneck at Alrewas lock with hire-boats coming and going but we were in no hurry so it didn't matter to us. While winding our way through the village we were hailed from a bridge and were surprised to find Barry and Ketruna waving at us. They were our marina neighbours for a number of years when we were at Frouds Bridge Marina, so it was a very pleasant surprise to see them so far from home.

Just around the bend, their boat 'Merlin' was moored in a lovely sunny spot. Just goes to show... you never know who you may meet along the canal.

The village of Alrewas dates back many hundreds of years and its unusual name is derived from 'Alder Wash' (swamp) due to the Alder trees that used to grow in and around the flood plains alongside the village. It still retains much of its historic charm with its old mill to the north of the village, the 12th Centuary church and its half-timbered thatched cottages.

Beside Bagnall lock, just as we were leaving the village, we saw this beautifully carved bench marking the spot as a gateway to the National Forest.

Leaving Alrewas behind, we were once more in open countryside for approximately 2 miles as we continued on to Fradley Junction (at the now familiar pace of a little over 2 miles per hour). This canal junction between Fradley and Alrewas near Litchfield is where the Coventry canal joins the Trent and Mersey and we would be leaving the Trent and Mersey canal at this junction. A very busy place with its famous canal-side pub and many gongoozlers (spectators) who line the bank, it's not the place where you would want to display poor lock-operation skills or bad etiquette! Ian was on the helm, expertly turning 60ft of boat around the tight 90 degree turn while I had the swing bridge open for him to allow Winedown to leave the Trent and Mersey and enter the Coventry Canal.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Friends and Family, and the Leicester Section

Leaving Stoke Bruerne behind, we were soon engulfed by the mouth of the Blisworth tunnel. At 3057 yards it is one of the longest on the English canal system and wide enough to allow boats to pass each other. Although on entering, one can see a light indicating the end of the tunnel, it takes more than 45 minutes to get through it.

The tunnel is said to be haunted. I quote the words of Ivan Broardhead who tells of the ghosts and the accident that led to the loss of life...

When the wind is whistling mournfully through the trees on a crisp moonlight night, they say you can hear choking cries emerging from the inky blackness of Blisworth Tunnel through which runs the Grand Union Canal. They are the imprisoned ghosts, or 'boggarts' in boatman slang, from a tragedy which occurred over a century ago in 1861.
Canal steamer 'Wasp' entering the northern entrance of the tunnel found that due to repair works a wooden channel or 'stank' had been built in the centre which was only wide enough for one vessel. The 'Wasp' slowed to pick up a carpenter who had finished his shift and then steamed forward steadily until it unexpectedly met a narrow boat being 'legged' through from the opposite direction. Unfortunately the engineers had just stoked up the boiler a few minutes previously so thick smoke was pouring from the steamer's stack. Before it could slow down the two vessels had collided and within minutes the channel was a smoky hell as choking men fought desperately to disentangle their craft. The 'Wasp' crew attempted to race the steamer to the open air, leaving the unfortunate leggers who had passed out in the fumes. One of the crew fainted and fell into the water where he was drowned, another died through suffocation, while the helmsman collapsed and fell overboard as the boat emerged into the daylight. The water revived him so that he was able to clamber back aboard and shut off the steam. Out of the gloom it was discovered that a hitch-hiking carpenter was also dead and the two engineers who had fallen against the furnace door had received ghastly burns. Even today people going through the tunnel say they experience a sickening sensation of suffocation near the Buttermilk Hall air shaft (sunk to give more ventilation after the disaster) and the cries of the drowning and choking men sound in the darkness.

We didn't hear any cries of drowning men as we went through the tunnel, but we did experience a sickening sensation when a hire-boat - travelling much too fast - seemed to lose direction (if that is at all possible in a narrow tunnel) and hit us head on. As Winedown shuddered against the blow, I heard the sound of breaking glass coming from inside the cabin. We scraped along the side of the tunnel and the hire-boat hit us again as it bounced off the opposite wall. While the man on the helm struggled to regain control of his craft, his companion smiled at us as if nothing had happened. It was certainly a relief to emerge into the sunshine again before I went below to clean up the broken glass.

At Gayton Junction, as the Northampton Arm of the Grand Union branched away to the north east, we swung north west towards Norton Junction and the Leicester Section of the Grand Union Canal. Only two miles along the Leicester section from Norton Junction, we came to Watford Locks, our first experience of a staircase flight of locks. A lock staircase is defined as two or more adjacent locks where the upper gates of one lock serves as the lower gates of the next. The Watford flight is formed by two single locks, a staircase of four and finally a single lock. Volunteers from the Canal & River Trust were on hand to help boaters through the flight - which is just as well - but we soon got the hang of the sequence. Each paddle mechanism had been painted red or white depending on its function and it was a matter of opening and closing the paddles in turn. "Red afore white and you'll be alright. White afore red and you'll wish you were dead!" get the sequence wrong and you risk flooding the side ponds.

Each rise of the staircase has a side pond that is used to control the water through the flight and the red and white side paddles are used in turn to empty and fill each chamber. The red painted paddle drained water from the side pond into the chamber while the white painted paddle allowed water to drain from the previous chamber into the side pond. This was to be our initiation run before the Foxton flight.

Although it looked tranquil and peaceful, the noise and bustle from the M1 motorway as well as the main railway line was a constant intrusion. I couldn't help but compare the different modes of transport and be thankful that we were on the canal.

From the summit at Watford, there is over twenty miles before the next lock which is the staircase flight at Foxton, however just two miles above the Watford locks is the Crick tunnel a mere 1528 yards. We made our way through Crick tunnel without meeting another boat and therefore without incident.

We had been told that the Leicester section of the Grand Union Canal was very pretty and we weren't disappointed. The canal meanders through the countryside, skirting villages and at one point it passes under the same road three times in less than a mile as it roughly follows a north easterly direction.

On Saturday 17th August, we moored at the top of the Foxton flight and spent time exploring our surroundings and watching boats go through the flights of locks. Foxton Locks is the largest flight of staircase locks on the English canal system with two staircases of five locks, and is considered one of the top ten attractions of the waterways.

It was while we were exploring Foxton that we came across Nb Lady Esther again. We met Dave and Angie Culley who own Lady Esther while we were in Berkhamsted and had shared a lovely evening together. Since the sun wasn't yet over the yardarm, Dave invited us for a coffee which we happily accepted.

Close to our mooring spot was this lovely almost-life-size sculpture. The detail is amazing and although there is a notice asking people not to climb on it, we saw a number of children try to ride the tow-horse.

North of Foxton, the locks are all 14ft wide: wide enough to take two narrowboats side by side, as are the locks south of Watford down towards the River Thames . Foxton therefore, was a bottleneck for the working boats at the turn of the last century. In 1900 the Foxton Incline Plane Boat lift (or Thomas Lift, named after its designer, Gordon Cale Thomas as it was known) was opened in an attempt to solve the problem of the operational restrictions imposed by the locks. The time taken to get through the 75ft drop went from approximately 45 minutes through the locks to less than 12 minutes on the incline plane. Unfortunately, it was not a commercial success and was closed in 1911. In 1928 the machinery was sold for scrap. There is now a trust (Foxton Incline Plane Trust - FIPT) that is actively engaged in the restoration of this wonderful piece of Victorian Engineering.

Sunday was a great day to work the twin flights of staircase locks.

The duty lock-keeper and team of C&RT volunteers had to be notified as they were scheduling the boats in turn and we waited at the top of the first flight for our turn.

It wasn't long before we were on our way. I took the helm while Ian worked the locks.

With the number of spectators, it would be folly to make a mistake, but the lock-keeper and his team made sure everything was running smoothly.

And an hour later we were in the basin at the bottom of the flight taking on water.

A funny thing happened while we were taking on water. We were greeted by a man on a boat called Billy. This in itself wasn't extraordinary but he said that his boat had been built by John Forth, the same boatman who we bought our boat from. Billy had originally been called Java Belle and was built the year before Winedown. Rob, the helmsman on Billy, had recognised certain features such as the unique pigeon boxes and Maddy Forth's artwork on the back cabin doors. The chance meeting was even more poignant as these two boats were the last two that John had any involvement with before he died in 2008

Not long after the pleasant encounter, we were on our way towards Market Harborough where we were to meet Colleen and Bruce, our friends from South Africa.

This 5 1/2 mile branch is well worth the visit and with no locks it makes for a pleasant run. Towards the end of the branch, we were treated to well manicured gardens that reached right down to the water's edge

We moored in the canal basin (Union Wharf) in Market Harborough where we had access to water, electrics, and of course ablutions for the princely sum of £10.00 per night and on Monday morning, we were well placed for the railway station, a little over a mile away.
It was an emotional meeting. I hadn't seen Colleen in more than 30 years and her family and mine had been friends since our parents were teenagers. Experiencing a taste of life on the canal system was something neither Colleen nor her other-half, Bruce, had done before so that made this visit even more special.
They were forced to slow down and enjoy our wonderful summer and we even had the opportunity to introduce them to a fruit of our land - Blackberries.

Unfortunately the blackberry season had hardly begun so the fruit was still tart, but frozen blackberries in a glass of Pinot Grigio is something worth tasting on a hot summer's day, especially in the middle of nowhere, beside the canal.

Over the next few days, between Market Harborough and Leicester, we were able to introduce our South African guests to a number of waterways delights. The Foxton Locks and incline plane, as well as a number of single locks; a swing bridge; the Saddington Tunnel; and in contrast to the structures, the quiet, empty landscapes with villages set back from the canal, as well as the busy city of Leicester.
But before I tell you about Leicester, I would like to mention narrowboat Amamaius. Colleen and Bruce's initiation to the lock process was at Kibworth Top Lock (18) on the Grand Union Canal. While Ian secured the boat on the lock operation mooring, Bruce and I prepared the lock. We filled the lock and opened the gates for Ian to bring Winedown in but with that, narrowboat Amamaius drew alongside Winedown. The helmsman asked if he could share the lock and almost before Ian had nodded ascent, Amamaius surged forward and went into the lock on the tow-path side. I was surprised at his lack of etiquette but shrugged it off (I thought that he would at least have waited until Winedown was in the lock) I was now on the wrong side of the lock so I clambered over the lock gate in order to work the lock alongside Winedown, while Bruce closed the gate behind Amamaius. While Bruce and I opened the paddles on the bottom gate to empty the lock, a woman gingerly stepped off her boat to watch us. I suggested that she might like to close up the lock behind both boats while I went off to prepare the next lock. "Oh No!" She couldn't possible do that because she had rheumatoid arthritis and therefore couldn't cross the lock. While this exchange took place, I noticed the helmsman looking lovingly at two shiny bikes on the roof of his boat and not bothering to get off at all to help. I was unreasonably irritated by his lack of concern for his poor wife and turned back to the task of working the lock. By the time we reached Taylor's Turnover Lock (20) the couple decided to stop for coffee while we continued on. That was the first time the fella got off his boat! We later saw the boat moored in Lakeside Marina near Birstall. If you come across narrowboat Amamaius , please spare a thought for the poor wife!

We had heard a few conflicting stories about travelling on the canal through Leicester, but since Colleen and Bruce were leaving us there, we needed to moor within reasonable distance of the railway station. Dave - from Nb Lady Esther - had told us of a pontoon mooring outside Castle Park in the heart of Leicester (immediately before Mill Lane Bridge). We were lucky enough to get the last mooring spot and thankfully tied up. Colleen and Bruce were to leave us the following day so we had time to explore our surroundings.

Castle park is the original site of Leicester Castle but all that can be seen now is the large mound upon which it was once situated. Buildings such as the Mary de Castro church and the cobbled lanes are an indication of Leicester's historical past. The park is locked at night but boaters have access via the waterways key (in order to access the mooring pontoon). This affords total security and also allows you to enjoy the peace and tranquillity as you stroll along the River Soar and appreciate the gardens in private.

A statue of Richard III commemorates his burial nearby after the battle of Bosworth in 1485 which saw the death of the last of the Plantagenet kings and the birth of the powerful Tudor dynasty. The remains of Richard III, having been found in a car park in Leicester, are now the focal point of much debate as to where his remains should remain! However, we visited the museum where there is a fascinating display and a model of the remains.

We had a day to spare after Colleen and Bruce left us and before Jo (Ian's daughter) with husband Chris and baby Hollie joined us. That gave me time to give the boat a good clean and for Ian to find an Indian restaurant. Friday night is Curry night as far as Ian is concerned, so we set off in search of curry. To our amazement, we didn't see a single Indian restaurant that day and Ian remains convinced that there are no Indian restaurants in Leicester - I'm sure there are many people who will contradict that belief.

Jo, Chris and Hollie arrived just before noon on Saturday so we set off down the canal towards Birstall and moored outside the White Horse Pub. There is a children's play area in the grounds of the pub so Hollie was in her element while we enjoyed a small libation. Later, in the evening, Hollie kept us all amused as she thoroughly enjoyed her evening meal.

Boaters facilities in and around Leicester are surprisingly few and far between. After Kilby Bridge on the outskirts of Leicester, there isn't another combined sanitary station 'till Barrow Mill Basin (18 miles and 21 locks away) so we called in at Lakeside Marina near Birstall to dispose of waste and take on water. It was the August bank holiday and we had quite a few guests so I didn't want to be caught short again!

Our next stop was the Hope and Anchor bridge (19) where there was good mooring and a lovely lakeside nature reserve. Here we met (daughter) Tanya with husband David and son Daniel as well as our granddaughter Phoebe. The weather was too good to pass up a BBQ, so while the children played, the men lit the fire and the ladies made salads. We had a wonderful afternoon before we said good-bye to Chris, Joe and Hollie and continued on with Tanya, David and the children.

At Sileby Lock on the River Soar, after a lovely lunch which we enjoyed in the sunshine, we said goodbye to Tanya and David. The Children would be with us for the rest of the week. As the car drove away, the children raced off towards the boat. I heard Ian mutter under his breath "For what we are about to receive..." I just laughed as I trailed behind the children.

While we were at Sileby lock, we were told of a fossil trail in Barrow Upon Soar so that was our next stop.

Barrow Upon Soar, a large village in northern Leicestershire, is situated in the Soar valley between Leicester and Loughborough. The village is renown for its plesiosaur, excavated in 1851, nicknamed the Barrow Kipper. We later found a copy of the skeleton on display in the museum in Loughborough.

Armed with a fossil trail guide, we all set off through the village to find and identify them. The fossils shown on the trail are not real fossils but rather sculptures which gave another dimension to the trail. Beside the skeleton of the plesiosaur, the children identified ammonites, trilobites, shapes of some early plant life, and even a dragonfly encased in a drop of amber. It is a marvellous way to get people to walk through this quaint village and we all enjoyed the experience before we set off towards Loughborough, the destination of the first package tour organised by Thomas Cook in 1851.

Rejoining the River Soar after Barrow Deep Lock (51) we were treated to a superb wooded stretch before going through the open Pillings Flood Lock. The canal skirts the town of Loughborough and the termination of the Leicester navigation and start of the Loughborough navigation is marked by a T-Junction.

We took the sharp left turn (not in a single manoeuvre I might add) which terminates at Loughborough Wharf.

The 48 hour mooring gave us plenty of time to catch up on laundry, do some shopping, replenish our water supply and dispose of waste before we enjoyed our surrounds. Moorings in the basin are excellent and as you can imagine, very popular. Although there were no other boats moored when we arrived, it soon filled up and some boats even had to turn back.

We soon discovered that the town has the world's largest bell foundry which made the bells for York Minister, Great Paul for St Paul's Cathedral as well as the 47 bells for the Carillon tower. Loughborough's Carillon Tower and War Memorial was built after WWII in honour of the 480 men of the town who fell during the Great War.

Set in the beautiful Queens Park, the tower is also home to the War Museum and here we found the enthusiastic curator to be very knowledgeable and fantastic with the children. Not only did he allow the children to touch the weapons on display but he actively encouraged them to try the firing mechanisms as well!

We climbed the 138 steps of the Carillon, passed the 47 bells and found ourselves on a balcony which afforded fantastic views over Loughborough.

Queens Park (within easy walking distance of the wharf) is also home to the Charnwood Meuseum and it was in here that we found a replica of the Plesiosaur skeleton (Barrow Kipper) that was excavated in Barrow Upon Soar. All in all, Loughborough was a wonderful place to visit and we didn't even scratch the surface.

All too soon, it was time to move on again. Not only had we agreed to meet the children's parents in Kegworth, but our 48 hours were up so we followed the the Loughborough navigation in a northerly direction towards the River Trent and stopped in Kegworth at the shallow lock - an open flood lock - only six miles from Loughborough.

After saying goodbye to the children and their parents we had time to relax, so we stayed in Kegworth for a few days before the next part of our journey on the Trent & Mersey Canal.