Running away to sea

15th-18th July: MK Marina to Slapton and back, 18 locks total.
    “Did you have many adventures then, when you were away on your boat?” asked a friend last week.

“Well, there was a breakdown and the business with the fence pole jammed in the propeller, but not really Adventures…” Boatwif then went into paroxysms of delight as she recalled the three theatre productions, the Wetland and Wildfowl Trust at Slimbridge, the vast views across the Severn Estuary. Time (or amnesia) has obviously healed the scar of the Mr Angry episode at Nafford Lock on the Lower Avon as that didn’t come to mind. (see ). Above all memories now are of unexpected conversations, of nosing around unfamiliar locations and the satisfaction of getting the boat up (or down) a number of locks.

Since being berthed in Milton Keynes we had slept at home in our own bed for all of nine nights when the opportunity and a reason for a weekend boat escape arose. Plans for day trips with friends needed to be translated into reality. How far could we get from Milton Keynes Marina? More to the point, where could Cleddau be turned round? So, on Friday afternoon a few supplies and the waterproofs were thrown into the car and off we sped to Milton Keynes. Before 5 o’clock Cleddau was out of her moorings and heading south along the Grand Union. The first wave of weekend hire boats from Leighton Buzzard surged towards us. One helmsman engaged panic mode on seeing a bridge, over–corrected his course, battered the bridge, reversed, lined up again and weaved his way through. The second wave of hirers was altogether more alarming. It wasn’t just the pirate outfits and flags (a cliché now) or that both boats were crewed entirely by alpha males or that most of the crew members were clutching beer cans or even that several of the crew were standing on the boats’ roofs. No, it was their determination to travel together, side by side, slewing and weaving their way along the canal…

Cleddau passed in the opposite direction, collision averted. Not much further on a towpath stone caught the eye: To the Thames: 55 miles. Would that we could just keep going, up over the Chilterns, then downhill to the Thames – and out to sea. A glorious evening it was, sunny, balmy and bliss to be afloat and out of earshot of traffic, if not of the trains. But towpath talk was of the weekend’s weather forecast, of the steady unrelenting rain to come.

Why then, in that steady unrelenting rain on Saturday morning, did Boatwif and the Captain even untie the boat from its mooring above Stoke Hammond Lock?  It was something to do with the Green Bag (into which all day and bed time reading gets pushed) which had not appeared on the boat but was still, pointlessly, positioned in the car.  A weekend without newspapers?! It was also to do with the madness that makes the Cleddau crew enjoy moving their boat, pretty well regardless of the weather.  So, once gaitered and over-trousered, jacketed and peak-capped, the crew untied the boat and headed for the three locks at Soulbury. The lock side pub seating was deserted. Rain was sloshing down, puddles were deep lakes. A boat was coming down the locks, heading for the IWA Festival at Burton-on-Trent. In no particular hurry and preferring slow safety to rash speed the locks, gates and paths were treated with great respect. The ropes grew heavier by the minute as more and more water gathered in the twine. As Cleddau moved from the middle lock two boats emerged from the top lock. The hire boat careered about, crashing into both sides of the middle lock. Its partner boat withdrew, preferring to wait and to do the remaining locks singly rather than as a pair…

Once out of the top lock the territory was familiar, if rain-sodden. Between here and the florally enhanced Globe pub Boatwif and the Captain had walked last March, he trying out his GPS gadget. Here the land begins to rise to the left, the views widening. (  An increasingly wet hour or so later Leighton Lock was reached, where the Captain lay down on the sodden lock side to fish out a stray traffic cone. Saturated ropes: shrivelled fingers.  After yet another thundering downpour Tesco was reached – and once fresh newsprint was on board small gaps developed between the showers. There were new views now since last we came this way, perhaps some thirteen years ago.  Attractive warehouse style apartments have sprung up alongside the canal, old sand pits are now nature reserves, a new boatbuilding yard is in business. Then, at Grove Lock there is a modern pub, beyond it a new marina, moorings at right angles to the canal. We pressed on, recalling that soon favourite vistas should reappear.  Church Lock: here the pretty little church is now a private dwelling, its garden busy with small birds and a greedy grey squirrel. The next stretch, in past memories the quietest of places, was resonating with a public address system. Over a hedge horse trials were glimpsed, riders straining to sail over the jumps in fastest time. To one more lock, Slapton. Site of the London Gliding Club and the Whipsnade lion visible, the wind rustled the rushes of the Slapton sidepond.

Just above Slapton Lock Cleddau was turned around. A trip on the Thames would have to wait for another time…  An overnight mooring was found, just a five minute walk above Church Lock. The grass had been trampled down, by previous moorers maybe? And as we were banging in  the mooring pins a fisherman passed, laden with seat, kit and rods, his eyes narrowing it seemed at our activity. A pleasant evening, a good night’s sleep, a lazy start. Then, still in night gear, on Sunday morning, a peek through an offside curtain confirmed the delight of being afloat: a wide expanse of water, a curiously new view of a boat some hundred yards ahead. REALISATION – this was not the view last night. We were adrift, cast out on an open sea! The back end, the engine end of the boat, was right across the canal, only the bow rope remained attached. CREW ALERT: boots with no socks, jumper with no underwear, out onto the towpath. The Captain scrambled into the engine room, retrieved the stern rope and pin from the water, coaxed the engine into life, set the tiller to port and worked the boat back towards the bank. Was the ground so soft from the rains that the pin became loose? Did a boat come by fast and its bow wave dislodge the mooring pin? Or did a mooring in that spot engage the wrath of local anglers who crept by in the night and pulled out the pin…?

Since running away to sea had proved somewhat alarming it was comforting that the rest of Sunday, a return cruise back to below Stoke Hammond Lock, proved less stressful, well apart from the “Excuse me Madam” tap on the arm from the Tesco security officer (whose job is it to take security tags off items? the customer’s?) and the three mile long fishing competition from the Globe to Soulbury.  So slowly we had crept along, every ten yards a hunched figure surrounded by an elaborate display of kit.

“I don’t want to damage your rod,” said the Captain to one.

“Oh, you won’t do that,” was the reply, “just you watch, we’ll look after them, they cost three grand a time.”

By 10 am on Monday Cleddau was tucked up, back in her temporary berth, missions achieved for her crew. Notes had been made of where to turn a boat and for a moment or two, during a mini unanticipated adventure, it had really seemed that we “had run away to sea”!

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