Day 18: Wednesday 14th July: The wrong sort of water

Little Paxton to Great Barford
Distance travelled: 10.75 miles
                Locks:   4
    It still feels remarkable that we made any progress yesterday after the breakdown episode, and it was 3pm before we eventually entered “new” waters.
    Keen to be back on plan today Ken was moving the boat away from its mooring just before 8 am – and indeed we had at least 5 miles and a lock behind us before he gave in to breakfast pangs. The first lock, Papermills or St Neot’s Lock, took a full forty minutes to negotiate.  First there was a very busy road to cross, then a long hike to the far end of the newly rebuilt lock (2005) to close the Vee gates.  Next the hike back to operate the guillotine gate which needed raising so as to empty the lock chamber. It’s done electrically, very slowly, as the torrent of water pours out through a very narrow channel and easily causes serious turbulence to boats waiting below.  Eventually the gate was ready to be raised (very very slowly) then the boat came in and was tied up while the gate needed to be lowered (again very very slowly).  Hike again back to the far end of the lock, to tackle what we would call “paddles”, but on the Great Ouse are called “slackers” and on the Middle Levels are known as “penstocks”.  The gearing here is operated from a grid type platform right above where the slackers are opened; the force of water was immense, deafening. Far away Ken did his usual semaphore arm signals but it was as if we were in two separate worlds! The variety of lock shapes and the different operating procedures has added challenge to our journey. The third lock of the day, Roxton, was far more straightforward, a regular shape and size, Ken commenting that it was “a lady’s lock”.  The fourth lock was very familiar: often we have walked out at Great Barford, and once, on the meadow beside the lock, I watched a pupil perform in a Sealed Knot Civil War re-enactment.
    Mostly the river has coursed past meadows and woodland; before St Neot’s were some truly splendid houses and gardens, then parkland and the golf course at Wyboston Lakes. Never attracted to spending time hitting a small ball with a golf iron nonetheless the course looked absolutely magnificent. Cruising past felt a bit like peeping over someone’s garden wall to see what normally would be private! Then after Eaton Socon tall housing blocks with harsh vertical lines have sprung up – and suddenly your vision is invaded by sharp and angular shapes: cranes, pylons, power lines, crop driers (or are they incinerators?), bridges (the A1-Cambridge road, the A1 Tempsford bridges, various footbridges…) If you know where to look two other distinctive man-made shapes: the television mast at Sandy and the Black Cat, known by every A1 traveller!
    Between Roxton and Great Barford the river is narrower, wending its way through reed and tree-lined banks. Only one place of habitation: a delightful house right beside the water. And then our arrival at Great Barford shortly after midday: dismay. No obvious place to moor a 60′ narrowboat, both EA and GOBA moorings already occupied. On the Severn narrowboaters used to refer to a flotilla of cruisers as “the Birmingham Navy”.  Here we are squeezed up against the St Neot’s Armada. So we tied up initially to a tree but have tidied ourselves up, but will be profuse in our apologies if the owner of the boat in the private dock we are blocking wishes to move his boat out…
    Ah, “the wrong sort of water”: we have a very large water tank and had filled up at Ely, but top of our To Do list today was to top up the water tank.  We crept alongside a landing stage at St Neot’s this morning looking for the tap recorded on the map – it had been disconnected by the Council.  Here at Great Barford a wide boat is moored right beside the tap, has been there at least two days and even our considerable collection of hose pipes and hose connectors won’t reach quite far enough. But there has been water, plenty of it, vertical, noisy, accompanying the thunder and lightning over the last couple of hours…
    Tomorrow: cleaning and polishing before the final 4 locks and 7 miles stretch up to Bedford on Friday.

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