From the Thames to the M25
The rubbish in the Thames Lock at Brentford on Friday afternoon (28th August) wasn’t such a shock second time round. First encountered the previous Sunday it had appalled. After the glories of the sparkling Thames this is no picturesque sight…
Now though it begins to make sense. Thames Lock at the southernmost end of the Grand Union Canal is some 121 metres / 395 feet below the summit at Tring in Hertfordshire. Water flows downhill, doesn’t it…. As the Grand Union approaches the Thames it passes through highly urbanised areas (Uxbridge, Hayes, Southall and Brentford). Sadly, litter-spattered streets and roads are not unusual in these parts. Another factor though is the River Brent. It’s nearly 18 miles long (29 km), rising in the Borough of Barnet and flowing in a generally south-west direction before joining the Grand Union a mile or so above Brentford. Debris gets washed into the Brent and then much of it reaches the canal. “Watch out for the tree trunk…mind the rubbish in the water near the weir…” were the sort of remarks oncoming boaters were making. Certainly this second trip up the Grand Union in less than a week revealed far more flotsam and jetsam than the earlier one. Remember the deluges of Wednesday (26th August) that had so reduced visibility for the Cleddau crew in Little Venice and Camden Town? Pedestrians and volunteer lock keepers on the Grand Union spoke of the torrential thunderstorms – and this is what the aftermath looks like.
The Grand Union was the watery motorway of its time, a route for transporting commercial goods between London and Birmingham. The canal is deep, it has broad locks which can take either a single wide beam or two narrow boats. Now, as on the western end of the Kennet and Avon Canal, long stretches of it are watery residential streets, boats packed together the answer to some people’s housing problems…
The route climbs steadily from London. Helped by a pair of friendly volunteer lock keepers on Saturday morning the boats climbed 6 locks in the Hanwell Flight. The high wall, a bricked up archway and severe looking buildings are part of the old asylum. Behind the arch way was Asylum Dock, into which coal used to be delivered and in times of surplus fruit, vegetables and animal produce was taken away by boat to be sold.
An overnight stop near Three Bridges allowed time for a little investigation. This was another of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s triumphs. Here a railway line (Southall to Brentford Dock) passes underneath an iron trough carrying the canal which itself passes underneath the Windmill Lane bridge.
You certainly see the weird
if not the wonderful on the lower sections of the Grand Union. There was a long delay while a wide beam boat struggled to back out of a small dock and turn to go north. Female passengers knew not how to help while the helmsman kicked the tree and then kicked the bow which was wedged on the towpath brickwork.
“Fans” of the anti-clockwise M25 who have crawled along the motorway near Heathrow may guess the name of this waterway: it’s where the Slough Arm branches off the Grand Union at Cowley Peachey Junction and extends for five miles into Slough. Most canal junctions have a tall signpost (sometimes partly obscured by trees) but here there wasn’t one, although for the benefit of walkers and cyclists there was another of these local map signs.
Towing. Since canals were first devised to transport coal and other goods boats have been towed. Initially of course barges were towed by horse. Later a powered boat (motor boat) would tow a butty. What a thrill then on Tuesday afternoon (just in earshot of the M25) to hear an old (1907) boat engine tuning up and then to see it pass, towing a butty (1906).
Twice boats have passed under human power. At a lock a wide beam was being hauled in. “Just had the bottom blacked,” said its owner. “Got no engine though.” He explained his strategy: lower the boat in the lock and exit it, spin the boat round by rope so it was facing the other way, and then have a friend tow him back to his farm mooring. Then a day later two folk were hauling their broken boat back to their marina (6 locks and 2.5 miles further down the canal). Tentatrice was moored just ahead of Cleddau. Along the gunwhale of Tentatrice, rope in hand, was creeping a female, a totally dripping wet female. There had been a loud splash a minute or so before – but no shouts. Somehow her partner had helped her out of the water and onward she came, very wet rope in her very wet hand. The rope was then negotiated over the bits of clutter on Cleddau’s roof.
“Alternator’s gone,” said one. An offer of a hot shower was made – but the hauling continued, at least until the boat had been hauled through Winkwell Swing Bridge…
Out on the Thames boats move fast and there’s less time to read or ponder boat names. While travelling at a slower pace in recent days these are a few of some smile-inducing names: Caldy (almost a Monkton Moment*!) Zoe of Limassol (so who spent time in Cyprus then?); Craster of Northumberland (memories of mouthwatering crab sandwiches there) The Lobster of Quadrille (a Lewis Carroll fan? See lyrics here). Finally, isn’t this boat name pretty appropriate for speedy narrow boats?!
Finally, a warning not only to gaze at the surroundings but also to check the waters. Passing through Watford’s delightful Cassiobury Park an odd-shaped item was floating just ahead – was it a fender detached from its boat? No, just a marrow… However, beware of what else might be lurking in those waters…
Stats since last post: 21 miles, 26 locks
Monkton Moments* to date: 19
(Monkton Moment*- a reference to / recognition of Cleddau’s Pembrokeshire connections)
Posted from Cowroast, on the summit level, 57 locks above sea level