In June 2017 Nancy and I made a short trip on a canal boat on the Grand Union Canal. Just a mid-week trip, picking up the boat on Monday afternoon and dropping it off on Friday morning. On the Monday morning we drove down from Staveley to Linslade a small town near Leighton Buzzard where we were to pick up the boat. We met my college friend Steve D and his wife in a pub in Linslade and caught up with them over lunch before setting off for the boatyard.
We rented the boat from a company called The Wyvern Shipping Company. I found them on the web and they seemed to offer a wide selection of boats of different sizes and amenities. Our boat was called Daffodil and it was a 40ft boat, 6 ft wide with sleeping for 4 people. It came fitted out with bedding, pots, pans, cutlery, etc and had everything we needed for a comfortable existence except for food and beverages which we provided.
We were guided through the boat’s amenities and operation by Dan from the company and then he took us out to show us how to negotiate a lock before setting us free. We were heading north so the Leighton Lock was about a quarter of a mile from the boatyard. Everything seemed pretty straightforward and since the boat was made of steel it was basically indestructible. We did on occasion bump into lock gates or the side of the canal but you really couldn’t do any damage to it. The locks too were quite logical provided you stopped and thought things through. The only problem that could befall us was to get the end of the boat stuck on the sill at one end of the lock while you are letting water out of the lock - that could tip the boat up and flood the other end. We didn’t do that.
We motored along, probably around 3 to 4 miles per hour, and within a couple of miles we were at the Soulbury Locks, a flight of 3 locks one after the other. It had the added bonus of a canalside pub with customers sitting outside to watch the spectacle of novice boaters trying to manipulate the locks. We handled things pretty well gliding through the locks with another boat and avoiding too much embarrassment.
We pushed on in the early evening through Stoke Hammond and then Fenny Stratford both of which had locks. We finally settled for the evening in Little Woolstone where there was quite a nice old pub, The Barge. The pub was old but it was in the middle of a fairly modern housing estate. It was pub quiz night and I was humiliated by the difficulty of the questions - I couldn’t answer hardly any. The steak and ale pie however was excellent and the blackberry cobbler made a fine end to the evening.
Next morning we were under way relatively early and made our way up to Gifford Park where we found a shop for supplies and a pub open for breakfast, and a pretty good breakfast at that. We pushed on through the more urban environment of Milton Keynes and then out into the countryside on the other side of town. We stopped in the village of Cosgrove where there was nice sandstone bridge which had some nice ornamentation. The bridge was called Solomon’s Bridge and was apparently so ornate because it was close by the residence of the local Lord of the Manor. Also in Cosgrove was a fairly unique pedestrian passage under the canal.
|Solomon's Bridge, Cosgrove|
While we were in Cosgrove we had stopped the boat and when we came to restart it, it would not come to life. We tried everything and ended up calling Wyvern Shipping for ideas. They told us to jiggle a few fuses in the engine compartment, and then switch to the second battery bank. Something worked because we eventually got things started and were able to move on.
Another 5 or 6 miles along the canal and we were at the bottom of the Stoke Bruerne locks. These are a flight of 7 locks up into the village of Stoke Bruerne. We tied up and rested for a while in the heat of a very hot afternoon. When we again came to start the boat, you guessed it, it wouldn’t start. This time nothing we could do would make it go and so Wyvern Shipping decided to send a mechanic out to see what he could do.
We waited in the heat of the afternoon until the mechanic arrived (about 1 ½ hours). He pretty quickly diagnosed it as a starter motor problem. He had a spare motor but what he didn’t have was the right sized socket to remove the old one. That was a bit of a frustration, but we were fortunate enough to get the engine started by tapping the starter motor with a hammer. We decided to push ahead up the locks and then see what happened the next morning.
Of we went again and worked our way up the 7 locks into Stoke Bruerne. We were the only ones going up and all the locks were set against us so we had a bit of hard work at the end of the day. We moored up in the very quaint village of Stoke Bruerne and ate at one of the canal side establishments (The Spice of Bruerne - a quite good Indian restaurant - a little out of character in a world of canalside pubs and English food).
|Entrance to the Blisworth Tunnel|
|Entering the Blisworth Tunnel|
The next morning our engine started first time so we set off to navigate through the Blisworth Tunnel. This tunnel is quite the engineering masterpiece being some 3000 yds long. It was opened in 1800 and since it had no tow path, the barges were walked through the tunnel by so-called Leggers who laid on their backs and pushed with their feet on the walls of the tunnel. What a strenuous job that must have been.
At the other side we emerged into the small village of Blisworth. We continued on through to the next turnaround spot which was at Gayton Junction (the junction where the Northampton arm of the canal cuts away from the main canal). This being just before lunch on the Wednesday we had to turn around to get back to the Linslade boatyard by Friday morning. On the way back we stopped in Blisworth and did some shopping. A nice little town with renovated canalside warehouses, a lovely church and rectory, and a shop that sold everything you might need to feed yourself on a boat.
|Exiting the tunnel on the way back|
It was a pleasure to ride through the cool tunnel back to Stoke Bruerne where we stopped to take in the Canal History Museum before heading down the flight of locks. On the way back Nancy did all the hard work opening the lock gates while I guided the boat into and out of the locks (the easy job). Some of the lock paddles are difficult to open and sometimes the gates require quite an effort to move.
|Operating the Locks|
We pushed on during the afternoon and early evening to Cosgrove and moored just below Solomon’s Bridge. We walked into the village and dined at the only pub in town - the Barley Mow. It had been a very hot day (the hottest of the year and the hottest June since the 1970’s I believe) and it made for a hot night’s sleeping on the boat. Fortunately the forecast for the next couple of days was much cooler.
On the Thursday we headed south from Cosgrove. The starting problems for the boat seemed to be behind us now and the boat sprang to life at the first turn of the key. Just south of Cosgrove was the first lock of the day where we encountered a wide boat (10ft or more) coming the other way. The owner was living on the boat and was moving to a new location (you are required to move every 2 weeks). It sounded a difficult life to hold down a job, perhaps own a car, and move the location every 2 weeks. There are rules about how far you must move and when you can return to a location so it can’t be easy.
After the wide boat passed we entered the lock and were joined by two older ladies who each had their own smaller cruiser style boat. They were aged 85 and 86 and were quite spry. They had started in Yorkshire and had been on the go for many weeks. They were heading towards London and then going back up to Yorkshire in the autumn. Quite the inspiration to be doing that in their mid-eighties and they were single handing their boats.
Traveling on we passed through Milton Keynes again, and over the Great Ouse Aqueduct and the Grafton Street Aqueduct. Quite strange to floating over other rivers and roads. At Soulbury in the late afternoon we passed through the three locks with a young couple who had just bought a boat to live on and were heading towards London. They couldn’t afford a house but they could afford 30,00 pounds for a boat. I wish them well.
|Operating the Locks|
We tied up below the Soulbury locks and then walked back to the lockside pub, appropriately called The Three Locks. The food was very good - some of the best Fish and Chips I have ever had. On the way back to the boat we passed another boat that had been following the same route as us all week. We had occasionally chatted with them as our paths crossed. They were Pat, the Englishman, and Penny and Laurie, the South Africans from Durban. They invited us on the boat for a drink and we joined them in their larger 60ft boat - very comfortable. We got on great and I must admit I overdid the Aberlour Malt a little. They piqued our interest for visiting South Africa one of these days.
|Wildlife along the way - Great Blue Heron|
On Friday morning we had to get the boat back to the marina for 9:00 am so we were on the way early. We only had a couple of miles and one last lock to reach Linslade. We pulled into the marina and offloaded our belongings and immediately the cleaners were aboard preparing the boat for its next customers.
A great way to spend a few days and something I would certainly do again.
There are some more pictures here.