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My early canal trips: 1969-1979

It was Easter 1969 and a small group of Engineering students from Bristol University, myself included, were on our way to a strange-sounding place called Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire. One of our party had been at school with two brothers, whose father owned a boatyard there called the Wyvern Shipping Company. They had just launched a new boat, the 'Pandora', and we were to take her out for her maiden voyage.

We arrived at the boatyard in a cloud of oil-smoke (the Ford Popular could only mange 40mph and had used 2 gallons of oil on the 100-mile trip) and were warmly greeted by Major Griffin. The boat had been launched 2 days early, so it was on the Thursday that we set off intending to do the 'Leicester Ring'. The Pandora was luxurious for the time, but was pretty crude by today's standards with no heating or shower; the water was gravity-fed from a tank on the roof (a typical Wyvern feature of the era) which had the virtue of simplicity but meant that there was a lot of weight high-up making the boat a little unstable, that you couldn't get cool water in the summer as the sun heated up the whole tank, and that you could only fill with water by standing on the roof.

Unfortunately I didn't take any pictures on that trip. In fact the memories of the trip are somewhat hazy, due to the number of intervening years and also to the quantity of alcohol consumed during the week. A few outstanding memories however are:

We made very good progress because there were no moored boats to slow down for, and hardly any other boats apart from the last few working pairs. We simply regarded these as an annoyance because they always claimed right-of-way at a lock even if we'd just finished setting it for ourselves.

We arrived at Foxton locks to find the side-ponds empty. We opened some paddles then heard a shout and saw a man standing on a bulldozer in the middle of the now-flooded pond. He had been digging out the silt from the side-ponds, and now we had stranded him. Getting the boat through the locks as quickly as possible, we then drained the side-pond for him again and he came over to 'discuss' with us the benefits of keeping our eyes open while locking!

The lock-keeper also told us that there was maintenance work going on between Foxton and Leicester so we wouldn't be able to go that way after all. We set off to Market Harborough for the night instead, and as it was getting rather dark we sent one crew member ahead with a torch to show the way; A few minutes later there was a shout followed by a splash, and the light disappeared; we stopped the boat, helped our crew out of the water, and went to the pub by the swing-bridge instead.

We decided to go back and try the Warwick ring instead. I hope that Leamington Spa has forgotten my first visit by now. It was early morning and we were under way, but there were no locks and I was very cosy in bed so I thought I'd have a lie-in, but the other crew-members objected to my laziness. Suddenly I was hauled from my sleeping bag, stripped naked, and carried out to the front. The bow-rope was tied around my ankles and I was suspended over the bow fender like an upside-down figurehead with my head just above the water, just as we reached Leamington Spa in the morning rush-hour. I tried to smile and wave (my hand) at the people on the bridges but I didn't see anyone waving back.

Hatton, a nice relaxing flight of 38 locks. Did I say 38? Yes, that's how many locks you have to do if after climbing the first 19 you find that the paddles on the next lock are being repaired.

And so we returned to the boatyard. The towpath telegraph had been working well, so Major Griffin had heard all about our impromptu Roast Duck supper and gave us a stern telling-off; maybe the snow-storm effect on the trees near Husbands Bosworth Tunnel where we had disposed of the box of feathers, had been bit of a give-away. Altogether it had been a wonderful trip, and I was now totally hooked on canal waters.

The next time I returned to the canals was in 1972. Six of us hired the 'Cleopatra', again from the Wyvern Shipping Company. At least this time I took a few pictures (but why didn't I take more?)

 

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Cleopatra at Watford
Cleopatra at Watford
Cleopatra at Watford
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Cleopatra on the Foxton summit
Cleopatra at Foxton
On the Grand Union

Cleopatra had many similar features to Pandora, particularly the roof-mounted water tank, but was generally much more luxurious (and also handled much better). Note that unlike today's Wyvern boats there were no windows in the front bulkhead, but there was a handy ladder up to the roof. There were also idiot-bars over the cockpit to prevent you from hitting the bridges with the cabin, and a railing around the very large stern area instead of today's distinctive two boxes. If you put the tiller hard over, the end would jam quite tightly under the railing; on her first attempt to steer through a tunnel, one of the girls panicked, screamed, jammed the tiller hard over, opened the throttle wide and dived down inside the cabin to hide. It was a good bang when we hit the wall!

One morning the girls had done some washing, and the idiot-bars on the front were festooned with items of their underwear. Unfortunately we failed to take the bend just north of bridge 41 near Bugbrooke. Next time you go under that bridge, see the small sandy bank straight in front of you, and imagine the hawthorn bush to the right of it liberally festooned with bras and knickers.

We had a great party on the last night. If any of the residents of Linslade can remember the night that a very tall girl, wearing a VERY short night-dress, danced the can-can on the roof of a boat next to the bridge to the music of Radio Luxembourg on a transistor radio (and I seem to remember that there were a great many people watching), well yes that was us!

Two years later, in 1974, we fancied a change of scenery and hired 'Monmouth' from Anglo-Welsh Narrow Boats at Great Haywood. I have one small reason to be eternally grateful to Anglo-Welsh for this hiring, which was that they provided us with a LOGBOOK.

Cover of logbook            Page of logbook

This logbook got me into the habit of keeping a daily log of every trip we make. These days I use an A4 book as my log, one page per day and a new book for each year. As well as helping me re-live every trip, it also reminds me how long it takes to travel to places, what  the pubs and scenery are like, who we met, and when the engine oil needs changing.

Reading that 1974 logbook, I see that most things then were much as today. We kept running too wide on the corners and getting stuck in the trees, we found the BCN very dirty and got a whole car-wash brush on the propellor (took an hour to cut it all off), somebody fell in, we found some good pubs and some bad ones, and so on.

 
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Debbie and I at Hawkesbury
Leaving the Blue Lias after a great many Scotch Whiskies
Watering at Fradley
Watering at Fradley

 
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The BCN
The BCN
The BCN

One noticeable difference was the way we made very good progress because there were virtually no moored boats so we didn't have to keep slowing down for them. As a result we completed the 'Warwick Ring' from Great Haywood within a week!

Most of us were keen radio amateurs, and there was a competition on the weekend that we collected the boat; somehow we had to keep station G4ALE on the air. We operated the transmitter from inside the club van on the way up to Great Haywood, only once forgetting about the 15-foot high aerial on the roof when we broke all the fluorescent light fittings in the garage as we stopped for petrol, but the boat was a different proposition altogether. Just as the man from the boatyard was pointing out the switches on the dashboard and saying "That's the fuse board, you can ignore it unless you try plugging in something that you shouldn't", two guys staggered past him carrying a huge radio transmitter; the man from the boatyard just gave up at that point. Once under way we coped quite well; as we approached each bridge, the bow lookout counted down "5-4-3-2-1-Bridge", which gave the radio operator just enough time to stop talking and switch off the transmitter before the lookout grabbed hold of the aerial to fold it down, then put it back up after the bridge and yell "OK". Any error of timing would have given the lookout man a multi-thousand volt electric surprise, but all went fine and we did very well in the contest too.

On the last night we decided to treat ourselves to a good meal. We passed Great Haywood going North, and stopped by Bridge 77 of the Trent and Mersey where our Nicholson showed the Coach and Horses pub with a restaurant. There was no track leading to the pub, so we scrambled over a couple of fences and crossed a field to get there, and then had the most wonderful meal. With drinks before the meal, wine with the meal, liqueurs and cigars after the meal, no expense was spared; afterwards the waitress came over and rather shyly said "I've got your bill here but it's so expensive that I'm rather afraid to give it to you." Feeling rather apprehensive we took it from her and had a look: for all 7 of us the TOTAL came to just over 35 (only 5 each). We couldn't believe it, and gave her 40 - she broke down in tears at getting such a big tip. What a perfect way to end the holiday.

The other trip that I must mention is the one we took 1976. Back in autumn 1975 I'd booked the 8-berth boat 'Hawkweed' from Concoform Marine at Weedon (yes I know  the name sounds like they made special condoms for sailors, but actually it comes from when they'd started out by building concrete boats). As always, we had to take a 'token' female with us because they wouldn't hire a boat to an all-male crew. Well, one of the crew (Pete) arranged to bring his girlfriend Debbie with him, and everything was fine except that at Christmas 1975 Debbie and I decided to get married. Not wanting to miss a good canal trip, we arranged the wedding for the weekend before the trip, re-arranged the cabin allocations on the boat, and so Debbie had her honeymoon with me and 6 other men. I'm happy to say that Debbie and I are still married, and still good friends with Pete too.

 
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Filming at Hillmorton
Filming at Hillmorton
4 boats to a lock at Braunston Flight
Braunston Flight

 That was the year of the drought; the canals were extremely short of water. Many of the locks were being opened for just 3 hours a day - and with so many boats queuing to use them, you could easily wait 2 or 3 days before it was your turn to use them.

We had an interesting hold-up at Hillmorton. The BBC were filming some period drama, and we all had to wait while a horse and carriage drove over the bridge several times. The director kept shouting "Shut that bl**dy barge engine off", but none of us had our engines running. When they did stop the offending engine, all his equipment switched off because it was his own generator he had been complaining about! We all laughed, for it was poetic justice after he had insisted on doing his filming for 2 of the only 3 hours that Hillmorton was open that day.

We had thought of going to Nottingham via Fradley and back up the River Soar, but although we managed to get to Nottingham OK the Soar was too low to be navigable and the boat had to come back the same way. In fact it came back without us; after the wedding we couldn't afford to take any more time off work, 4 new crew members came up to Nottingham by train to take the boat for the second week, and we (and 2 others) used their return tickets to go home again. Not something that either the Railways or the Boatyard would have approved of.

I had couple of other weeks on the canals in the 70's. Once when I helped some friends 'liberate' their half-finished boat from a failing boatbuilder who was trying to exhibit it at an IWA National Rally, and once when we took a Wyvern boat from Weedon when Blisworth was closed for repairs, but I've got no details of those trips to record here. The next pages on the website will start looking at the 1980s, when the logbooks will fill in most of the details for me and hopefully I'll be able to scan in some good photos. So thanks for reading this page, I hope you've enjoyed the reminiscences; if so, and you haven't read my memories of the Norfolk Broads and the River Shannon in the 60s and 70s, then please have a look at  them too (there are a few more pictures than there were on this page). Meanwhile, keep looking around the site as I add more pages for you to read.

 

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