Sawley to Leicester: 25¾ miles, 18 locks
It was in April 1994 that the 60 foot Sir William Pennyman left Sawley to head south. Her crew, of the not very experienced Captain and a total canal novice, (despite his being a very experienced RAF navigator) worked from dawn till dusk to deliver her from the Nottinghamshire / Derbyshire border to her first mooring, on the River Avon at Evesham.
At that time the boat (“he” Sir William Pennyman, by boat name, “she” by convention) was painted green with a red roof and yellowy pine doors (later replaced).
After two summers on a river mooring Cleddau (still green and red) was found a new home, at Willowbridge on the Grand Union Canal, at Bletchley. Here serious cabin surgery took place (and a self-applied red and blue paint job) before she was relocated to Frouds Bridge, on the Kennet and Avon Canal, near Aldermaston, Berkshire.
While on that canal the wooden window frames were replaced with black metal frames and the boat was expertly painted. (Devizes 2002)
Then, in April 2008, came another move, north, to Cheshire, first at Lyme View Marina, and then from 2010 at Victoria Pit Marina. Two more repaints later, with gold-framed specs replacement windows and solar panels these days, she is a lady of mature age…
It’s 25 years since Cleddau was last on the Soar, the river regarded at the mouth as the county boundary between Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire.
There are many chalets and buildings on stilts and the frequent (open) flood gates make you realise that this is a river where water levels can rise to worrying levels. It takes a while before the cooling towers of the Radcliffe-on-Soar Power Station that dominates the skyline fade from view.
The locks are broad, suited to a wide beam boat or two narrow boats, but they are tough to operate. There was a struggle to get the water level equalised at Radcliffe Lock and a lot of work to do, watched by some gongoozlers, at Kegworth Deep Lock. “I’ve lived round here for about five years,” said the young girl, “but never seen a boat at the lock before…”
There was better luck the next day when three locks were shared with experienced boaters from Stenson. Often the lock gates are extremely heavy to get going, whether to open or to close them. The ground paddles (which are used to bring water into the chamber before using the paddles on the top gate) are often much heavier and stiffer than elsewhere. Happy timing with other boaters at Zouch Lock meant that an undeployed Boatwif could see the force of water surging through the gate paddles from the bow deck.
The lower Soar winds its way through meadows, past mills and backwaters. Pylons march purposefully across the fields, many of them ablaze now in their oilseed rape yellow colour. Waterside there were many yellow and blue Ukrainian flags, fluttering in the breeze. There are grand gardens and small gardens, garden offices, prettily painted sheds, colourful garden seating, hot tubs. One waterside business at Barrow-on-Soar offers a range of fun craft to get out on the water. A car on water? A trike? A swan? A flamingo?…
Then at Mountsorrel right in front of Cleddau’s bow on a Tuesday evening kayakers rocked themselves off the river edge into the water. Where had all the kayaks come from? Well, there are 30 odd of them and about the same number of Canadian canoes stacked up behind the Waterside Inn that overlooks Mountsorrel Lock.
Twisting and turning the river winds its way towards and through Loughborough (pronounced ‘Luff-burra’, as the Pearson Guide helpfully notes). Here the course is canalised and the navigation route is easier. Back on the river, though, and the twists, bends and lengthy weirs are present again.
‘Rain stopped play’ for a day at Mountsorrel but travelling further upstream the following day with a Piper boat, nb ‘Nice Butt’, meant the lock work was shared. There was a cairn at Sileby Mill Lock. Had the painted pebbles that surrounded it been the work of youngsters at the beginning of the pandemic…?
Slowly the boats were approaching Leicester. There was a delay at Junction Lock, a boat coming down. There were plenty of life-jacketed helpers up on the lock side. While Nice Butt slid into the lock the community boat backed up to the steps to pick up its training crew.
The two narrow boats, companions for 5 locks, parted after Birstall Lock.
As the river twists onwards there are frequent weirs and glimpses of lakes through the trees. This is country park territory, where disused gravel workings had been incorporated into the Watermead Country Park, noted as “a green lung for Leicester folk.” From Belgrave Lock there’s sight of an extraordinary shape – it’s the National Space Centre.
The city began to close in – factories, old brick chimneys, Victorian-era terraced houses, urban murals – and it was in factory land that there was an ominous CLUNK – or was it a BANG…? The engine stopped dead – it re-fired, then stalled… and did so again. There was no propulsion.
To the left were just straight flat brick walls, with nothing to tie to. Ahead some distance to the right was a length of stone edge. The Captain waggled the rudder back and forth, keeping the boat in a glide forwards. Closer, closer until, rope in hand, Boatwif could jump to the towpath and pull the boat forward – until it grounded.
“Prop jammed,” the Captain diagnosed. On the bank Boatwif prepared for a long rope-holding exercise. On the back deck the Captain lifted the boards and the weed hatch. “Let’s hope it’s not a shopping trolley,” he muttered.
Long pond gloves encased the arms and down he lay, head down the void. There was groping about. “It’s a tree trunk! It’s jammed right across the prop!” came the exclamation, and there was much scrabbling about to dig out the wood saw from the depths of an engine room cupboard. Sawed into two the offending object was retrieved from the prop, passed over to Boatwif and hidden in the towpath undergrowth.
Onward, one more lock and less than a mile to go to a hoped-for mooring spot. North Lock was a brute – top gates swinging, constant leakage into the chamber, bottom gates too heavy to open without recruiting a passer-by’s help. Were these locks this difficult 25 years ago, or have the mists of time eroded all memory of the challenging bits on this waterway…?
There was space on the Friars Mill pontoon. Business offices overlook the water, as do CCTV cameras and security patrols overnight Periodically rowing crews flash by, sometimes coached from the towpath by a boy on a bike. .
So, apart from its heritage as a garment-making centre, does the city of Leicester have anything of interest for visitors who arrive by boat…?
Trip stats since leaving Victoria Pit: 116 miles, 73 locks, 2 swing bridges, 1 tunnel and 1 cow
Height drop from the Macclesfield summit: 416 feet
Height rise since Trent Lock: 127 feet
Queries about the Tudor rose: 3