Sloe, blow, lock, lock, slow

Tuesday 25th August: Bugbrooke to Braunston Tunnel (West Portal) :    12 miles, 7 locks
    An idea has just struck me: you know how at Christmas time you come across cheery little books on specialist subjects, such as tractors or garden mowers: perhaps a publication of boats with gorgeous decoration or witty names would make a welcome stocking filler. I say this because yesterday at Gayton Junction we passed a boat called L’escargot, a happy looking snail picture on the side, and towards the back were the words:
                                                            not too fast in the morning   
                                                                slow in the afternoon
Fast was not a word in anyone’s vocabulary today.
    The Grand Union is a very busy canal, the through route from Birmingham to London, it is joined by traffic from Oxford and Leicester. Many boaters who have been on long summer cruises are returning now to home moorings. Yesterday going down the Northampton Arm we crossed people going back to the River Wissey and to the Great Ouse; today we talked to someone returning to Thrupp, Oxfordshire (she has has been in the northwest and has one positive memory of the day that the sun shone and they were able to BBQ at Bugsworth). Many hire boat companies operate within range of this area and today it certainly feels that there have been more hire boats on the move than private boats. It is good manners to pass moored boats slowly, so as not to cause needless turbulence. So, high numbers of boat movements, less space to move in, apprehension on the part of novice boat crews – and the wind. We started shortly after 8 o’clock, a bright and blustery morning, the hedgerows festooned in sloes, wild plums, crab apples and blackberries.  Frequently the engine revs had to be pulled right back as we passed moored boats. We followed a slow boater for ages, then he pulled in. Temporary relief: then another boater in front of us, anxious, constantly looking over his shoulder, even on tickover our engine was catching his. Double moored boats one side, overnighters the other – a tight squeeze for all. Into reverse to gain space between us. On we went, a sharp wind blowing, on and on and on. Slow progress – and then at Weedon a timely gust blew that boat briefly against another – and conveniently into a mooring slot. Slow engine revs reduces the effectiveness of steerage and strong winds can add to steering difficulties. We overtook, offered advice  – and gathered speed, briefly.  More moored boats, more oncoming traffic, another hire boat ahead, a father giving steering instruction to a daughter.
    Whilton Bottom Lock is often a busy spot: opportunities to refuel, to have your toilets pumped out, to shop for basic groceries or boat items. As we drew in a pair of hotel boats, tied together, emerged from the bottom lock and took up residence on the pumpout station. Two boats ahead of us crawled into the lock to begin their ascent. It was thus a slow start to the flight of seven, spread out over about a mile. Our companions in the locks were novices, but keen to learn and take advice. How the wind blew. Mooring below occupied locks became a challenge overcome only by weight on the rope and stamina in the hands. The boaters coming towards us would open conversation with “Better than yesterday, isn’t it?” Each would regale his or her own torture story (“I couldn’t see, the rain was bouncing two feet above the canal” and ” I was soaked right through despite my umbrella.”) Slowly we worked our way up; where earlier ears had been assaulted by Virgin trains and then motorway dash now the gusting wind and rushing water continued to batter our senses. At last Norton Junction was reached, bear right to Leicester but left to Braunston. The tunnel approach was more sheltered, we glided in and chugged on through, unimpeded by approaching boats. Twice strange oval pools of light lay on the water, reflected from the ventilation shafts above.  Then light at the end of the tunnel…
    We tied up above the Braunston Top Lock, sighed, lunched and each took a stroll to reconnoitre tomorrow’s lock challenge (six) and to see whether the canalware shop at Bottom Lock is still trading, which it is.
    Odd details of no importance from today:
1. Lost overboard: the back deck mat, soaked yesterday, flew off from its drying position on top of the gangplank.
2. Spotted on the skyline: an artificial tree 
3. Chimney smoke: seen, two boats with lit solid fuel stoves
4. Ssh, go gently, Fairy Crossing
    Towpath bulletin to finish with: this afternoon a hire boat sank in Lock 4 of the Whilton Flight, stopping all boat movements north and south behind us…
Tomorrow we turn northwards at Braunston Turn, heading towards Rugby.

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