Cleddau is on a previous cruising patch, this section of the Kennet and Avon Canal being familiar from Frouds Bridge mooring days. For nine years the Captain had acted as a Working Man, donned suit and tie each morning, jumped off the boat, commuted to work, returning at night to tend the stove – eat and sleep. Weekends saw him as Motorway Man, up the M3, the M25, the M1. Laundry turned round at home it would all start again very, very early on a Monday morning.
In 2007, though, all that came to an end and in the Spring of 2008 Cleddau moved to the Macclesfield Canal…
This current section of this cross-country K&A cruise is proving a downstream memory trip.
Here, about twenty years ago, there was an unplanned and undignified fishing trip. Cleddau and crew had secured a good mooring alongside the pleasant green sward on the Town Wharf. Three days or so previously the Daughter (later the Cheshire Mum) had made a delivery. Her student house in Reading had a washing machine, a working washing machine. No-one mentioned that it didn’t do spinning. Still, it had been a kind and novel offer, student daughter taking away boaters’ dirty washing at Reading and returning clean (though pretty soggy) washing a few days later further up the canal. On a sunny day at Hungerford the still very wet towels and sundry other items were arranged on an airing rack on the boat’s roof… A squall blew up, the rack toppled over and it and all items plunged to the bottom of the canal. Worse than the washing being wet was that when recovered it was now very muddy…!
Often Relief Captain and Relief First Mate (now the Tentatrice owners) had crewed on Cleddau. Waterproofs have always been required kit for a boat trip, regardless of season. Just before Hungerford (coming from the west) is a water point. Here in absolutely torrential conditions one day the boat was serviced. It was the sight of Hungerford Bridge that brought the flashback – sodden male crew members battling to turn the boat, drenched female crew members sheltering under the bridge arch, joined by several dozen of the most unhappy, completely saturated ducks, all with totally bedraggled feathers… Ever since a rainstorm’s ferocity has been judged by “as bad as a Hungerford” or “less than a Hungerford”…
A third flashback. Maybe it was about 2000. The boat was being moved to Devizes for various works and a repaint job. Cal Son and Cal Mom (in their pre-Cal days) had volunteered to help. Cars had been pre-positioned and the boat was moved up the canal. Boatwif’s role was to arrive early evening to allow Cal Son to return to his home. Arriving at about 7.30pm, after a long school day, 3 motorways and a hundred odd miles there seemed to be consternation in the air. “But we’ve been here absolutely hours – and we’re hungry,” claimed one. The solution was takeaway fish ‘n’ chips for four – and Boatwif’s car keys for the volunteers to drive back to Frouds Bridge to pick up their car.
Kintbury (Saturday night). The K&A at Easter time becomes a frenzy of water-borne activity when hundreds of canoeists (teenagers to veterans) paddle from Devizes to Westminster. Road access near locks becomes clogged as parents and supporters arrive to feed nutritious items to the paddlers. Adult participants aim to do the 125 mile 77 portage trip in one uninterrupted stint. So, if moored near a lock over an Easter weekend, the sound of canoeists dragging their craft out of the water, trotting along the towpath, clambering back in and paddling onwards is something boaters learn to live with, day and night.
FLASHBACK: Easter 1999. With three weeks to go to her wedding the Daughter (still Reading based, a PhD student now) drove out for a conference. Topic? The Wedding March. She had chosen Pachelbel’s Canon in D (Skip the ad.) as her music to walk down the aisle. The piece was played and within the confines of the boat she and the Captain began to rehearse their Wedding Walk. A wedding aisle offers more uncluttered space than the inside of a narrow boat so it wasn’t long before at dusk they had adjourned to the towpath. As the music wafted outside through the windows and canoeists struggled back into boats the Captain kept up his mantra: “Point your toes and keep it slow… Point your toes and keep it slow…” Yes, Kintbury, not a bad place to practise a ceremonial walk!
Through Dreweat’s Lock on Sunday. Another memory stirred, of an impromptu towpath drinks party a decade or more ago. It had been a lovely sunny day and it was late afternoon. As the lock was approached it became clear that there was a string of boats tied beside the towpath and a gaggle of people around the lock.
“You’ll have to stop,” said one, “stop here, we’re all stuck until it’s fixed…” Hands helped the boat to moor up at the back of the boat queue. The ‘it’ was the bottom right hand gate, hooked off its hinge by a hire boat. The lock was out of commission and queues of boats had built up above it and below it.
The British Waterways chap called out to deal with the off-balance non-closing gate assured the assembled company that help and a JCB would be there early the next morning…
What was to be done in the meanwhile? Make some Pimm’s, offer it around, share some drinks and nibbles. Below the lock the same party atmosphere developed among the boaters stranded there. Next morning dawned dry and misty. Sometime after 7am a small yellow machine chugged across this field (notice the neatly stacked haystacks this week) and was set to work at the rogue lock gate. Steadily the gate was lifted back onto its hinges – and by 8am the lock was back in operation and the queues were dispersing, west towards Devizes, east towards Newbury.
Onwards to Hamstead Park (on Sunday). Would that special mooring still be there? It was, midway between Hamstead Lock and Benham Lock. Here there is a weir and a good edge for mooring against just before it. There used to be weekend jaunts from Frouds Bridge to this place. Here it is quiet, remote and the River Kennet is close by. Anxieties about internet access were unknown back then. One weekend in the summer of 1999 there was a jolly towpath dinner (with the Tentatrice crew-to-be, it’s a photo of a photo ) right at this spot. Not in possession then of a picnic table, the table and chairs were moved from the saloon onto the towpath. All went well, swimmingly, you might say, until the transfer of the table back onto the boat. Somehow the table slipped, split into three parts, the top and a gate leg taking to the water and the other gate leg remaining in someone’s hands. The first instinct was to giggle, to giggle a lot – and then to grab a boat hook and thankfully to rescue the floating objects. No damage was done – the table was dried off, reassembled – and in due course a one piece picnic table (suitable for towpath dinners) came on board.
On Sunday evening then, on a lovely evening, there had to be a towpath dinner re-enactment at this very spot. There were two tables this time – but, fortunately, no need as darkness fell to retrieve items from the cut!
Opposite the boats was a large area of greenery and trees, Hamstead Park according to the Geo map. Tracing a footpath shown on the map on Sunday afternoon Boatwif, Relief First Mate and the Boat Dog discovered a secret and delightful world, one of mown paths, attractive bridges, weir machinery and, across the water, a distant flash of reds and blues…
Onwards to Newbury on Monday morning. Along this canal structures such as these are common. “What is that?” had often been asked by visitors aboard Cleddau when the K&A Canal was the home stretch.
These are just two of the several hundred pill-boxes built in less than a year during World War 2. They are mainly north of the canal and were the final GHQ (General Headquarters) Stop Line designed to slow down any progress being made by German invasion forces. Now these buildings, often inhabited by bats, have Listed status.
A look at the route ahead prompts other memories: still to come then are the Chimney Decapitating Bridge, several infamous swing bridges and the Lovely Meadow.
On Tuesday to Thatcham or beyond; to the Thames by Friday.
Stats since last post: 9 miles, 10 locks
Monkton Moments* to date: 9
(Monkton Moment*- a reference to / recognition of Cleddau’s Pembrokeshire connections)