Know your junctions…
After 89¼ miles northwards from the Thames at Brentford (or so the Norton Junction sign says) the Grand Union main line bears left and westwards, past some open fields, then through a tree-lined cutting and into the 2042 yard / 1867 metre long Braunston Tunnel. As canal tunnels go it’s fairly high and also wide, wide enough to allow narrow boats to pass in opposite directions. There is a kink in the alignment near the eastern end, which does perhaps increase the chance of boat collisions. The crew of nb Louise II, travelling through the tunnel ahead of Cleddau, were hit by an oncoming boat, a hit which knocked the dog off the stern steps down into the cabin and brought various items to the floor…
Boaters emerge from the western end and within a few hundred yards face a six lock flight down to Braunston. On Saturday these were the last double width locks that the Cleddau crew would face this cruise, or this year…
Bear left here and after about five miles you reach Napton Junction, where it’s left (south) for Oxford or right (north) for Birmingham. For Cleddau though, at Braunston Turn, the canal bears right, becomes the North Oxford Canal and heads off north and west, still initially in Northamptonshire and then in Warwickshire. Know where to look over your shoulder and you’ll see the fine highly decorative spire of Braunston’s church. It sits prominently on the hill above the canal and is often referred to as The Cathedral of the Canals”.
For miles the waterway creeps quietly through very gently rolling countryside. The M45 crosses the canal but its low traffic volume means road noise hardly intrudes. Almost everything is smaller about this canal – its width, its older bridges, even the size of its marinas. 7 miles after Braunston come the Hillmorton Locks.
“Er, what do we do here?” said a confused boater to the Captain. After the double width locks of the Grand Union the sight of two narrow locks side by side was quite unexpected. “Is there a queue? Is there a priority?” The three original locks in the flight were duplicated in 1840 to form three paired locks which allowed an increase in boat traffic and less congestion at the locks.
Each lock is operated independently of the other and though there wasn’t a queue there was a delay. A boat was beginning its rise in the nearside top lock. There was consternation in the air as its crew gathered in conflab. “We’ve changed our minds,” shouted a man at the far end gate. “We’re going back down. The boat behind has engine trouble – terminal…!”
Their boat slowly dropped back to the bottom of the lock and hands stern-hauled it out of the chamber. Cleddau then worked down through the lock. Disconsolate men were gathered on the towpath. “Got an engineer on board?” one called.
“Or a spare engine – that’d be better,” groaned another. The crews had been travelling together from the same marina. Phone calls for help had been made – but the symptoms suggested a dropped piston.
Onwards, downwards; but as is often the case when you chance upon someone else’s drama you wonder how their difficulties were resolved…
Shopping opportunities presented themselves predictably (Tesco, open from 0930, tills at 1000 on a Sunday) – and also unpredictably. A boater selling rubber tyre fenders (hooray, replacements for the two lost this summer) brought a smile to the Captain’s face. Later the skipper of nb Waterways Routes cruised past, and with an outstretched litter picker, stern to stern, slickly passed over a leaflet about his mapping wares…
On a golden day, with no locks and with the sun behind, there was nothing else to do but gaze at the changing Autumn colours and search the horizon for a glimpse of Coventry’s skyline. There were familiar boat names, Alaska and Jannock and Independence of Bollington. There were more motorways (the M6 and the M69); there were horses and cows and a donkey at Ansty – and a bit further on that vehicle garden, where once-loved cars are left to rest rust…
Hawkesbury Junction: it’s where the North Oxford Canal joins the Coventry Canal, a shallow lock separating the two. Managing the double right turn under the roving bridge (double left from the opposite direction) can be a challenge, especially in blustery conditions. On Monday morning it was calm, no gongoozlers were there as witnesses – so the Captain managed a perfect turn!
This is Warwickshire coalfield territory and the canal weaves past Bedworth and Nuneaton to Atherstone. There are visual treats (the zany figures at Charity Dock, well-tended allotments stretching through Nuneaton, bling decorations in various gardens ) – and another canal junction. Marston Junction
By early afternoon on Monday Atherstone had been reached. There’s an 11 chamber lock flight here. Several volunteer lock keepers, smooth paddle gear and well balanced lock gates made for a smooth downward passage – despite a heavy rainstorm (but the rainbow was colourful! ) Last night’s mooring at the historic Hawkesbury Junction rather overloaded the senses: traffic drone from the M6, the stark and ugly shapes of the pylons, the cacophony of a Sunday afternoon rock band in the garden of The Greyhound. As for tonight there is just the sound of steady rain to disturb the peace…!
Any more canal junctions ahead? Well, yes: Cleddau should pass through Fazeley Junction on Tuesday (near Tamworth), then (during the next week) turn left at Fradley Junction (near Lichfield), pass through Great Haywood Junction (Rugeley, South Staffs) and finally left at Hardings Wood Junction (Kidsgrove) for the Macclesfield Canal.
(** Anybody else hear the Harvest Festival broadcast live on Radio 4 on Sunday morning from Wallingford Parish Church? The Physicist, previously mentioned in these posts, took part in the service – which required an 0630 rehearsal…)
Stats since last post: 40 miles, 21 locks
Monkton Moments* to date: 22
(Monkton Moment*- a reference to / recognition of Cleddau’s Pembrokeshire connections)