The cat’s whiskers

Grand Union: From Calcutt to Royal Leamington Spa:

8¾ miles, 20 locks

 It was ten years ago, in 2013, that Cleddau last travelled this stretch of waterway, albeit from the opposite direction…

It’s the Grand Union, along which wide beam boats can cruise between London and the outskirts of Birmingham. There are lines of moored and liveaboard boats, some of which have accessorized their moorings with sheds, flags – and in one case, former crew members who’d “been worked to the bone”, according to the boat’s owner…

Glamping is on the rise here at Gibraltar Wharf     – Podtastic (see website here ) has three glamping pods and an on site children’s play area. Is this still to be finished building intended as a lodge or a social centre?

A mile further on is Stockton Top Lock,    the first of 8 locks which run down through tree-lined countryside. That there are industrial or business units nearby is a complete surprise (see the aerial picture ) since Cleddau’s downward journey felt a solitary affair, accompanied only by morning birdsong.

Boatwif’s mind recalled the first ever transit down here (1997?). A pair of boaters on a craft half Cleddau’s length waited to pair up. It was a friendly and helpful move. Down the boats went, one short yellow and green boat, its back doors almost obscured by two huge tomato plants, alongside one overgrown 60 foot boat, then still in its green cabin and red roofed phase. Who was responsible for growing such a magnificent tomato crop? Why, He was, She said, adding “not that He ever eats any of them..

As the lock-dropping continued, conversation had turned to home moorings. “Caldon Canal,” She’d said. (Where was that…?) “Boat Club,” She’d continued, “At Endon”. It was probably 15 years later when in 2012 Cleddau cruised along that Caldon Canal, passed Endon – and her crew remembered fondly the Tomato Plant Boat…

At the fifth lock down the Captain spotted a boat and crew further up the flight heading downhill.



The boat, a Gayton hire boat with a Swedish flag on its tiller, caught up. It was Tuesday and the crew had recovered, just about, from their Eurovision celebrations… It was good to have company (and extra hands) for the last few locks.

On, singly again, for the last two locks of the day and a pleasant overnight mooring at Long Itchington on an aqueduct above the River Itchen.


The downward descent continued on Wednesday: Bascote Staircase first. Here water from the upper lock feeds into the bottom chamber. The bottom lock must be empty before a boat starts to go up or down.

Just as Boatwif began filling the top chamber another boat arrived at the bottom.

“Oh, great, we could pass in the middle!” said one of the other boat’s crew members. Memories swam back of doing the Bunbury Staircase Shuffle one time, then three boats playing the old sliding tiles game. (Step by step account in here: ).

It proved a slick operation at Bascote. As one boat descended another rose and when the waters levelled the boats cruised past each other to continue their respective routes.     Smug you can feel when something goes so well, like cats licking their whiskers… 

Cleddau and crew continued on, to complete another 8 locks that day. There was the pretty lock cottage and fine lilac tree at Welsh Road Lock,   the astonishing earthworks for HS2,

the leaky gates    and one alarmingly rotten lower balance beam    (Fosse Lock, 22?).

And so, eventually, the bottom of the long descent was reached,     at Radford Bottom Lock. After miles, it seems, of the canal creeping between trees on either side,     a bend was rounded and suddenly there was space and light! What a glorious place to be, overspill water surging down to the River Leam,  vast swathes of cow parsley in the fields below the canal    and a long stretch of mooring overlooked by Radford Semele’s square-towered church. 

    And delightfully ithere was bell-ringing practice on a Thursday night.

There’s a swift transition from the rural to the urban – where does Radford Semele end and Leamington Spa start? Houses, the sound of primary pupils outside for morning play, a pub with Live Sports TV, a parade of shops and then a place to pull up beside purpose-built student accommodation in Royal Leamington Spa.

It was in 1838 that Queen Victoria granted permission for the town to be called “Royal”. The waters had made it famous and an imposing statue of Queen Victoria dominates The Parade. (But see how the statue fared in World War II).  . It’s worth making time to explore properly the baths and the town’s relationship with health cures and spa treatments.

Doctor Henry Jephson (1798 – 1878) was a local doctor who promoted the practice of “taking the waters”.  He developed an extensive patient list of both important figures and poor folk. Mid-morning  in the lovely Jephson Gardens (named after him) there was a busker on trumpet while further up the Parade a saxophonist played moody music outside the M&S Food Hall…

And the cat in the mural outside the student halls – did it too hear the shouts of elation at 0245 coming from the student common room? An overseas sports event perhaps…

It will be uphill after Leamington – but help is on its way on Saturday – better check the energy bar and Kit Kat stock…

 2023 mileage total: 114¾, locks: 60, swing bridges: 4, tunnels: 2

Conversational snippets in passing…

  • “Do you live aboard?” :FAQ now posed 4 times
  • “Cleddau – Welsh? Lancaster rose?”
  • Re the benefit of solar panels: ”It’s more important to have clean knickers than burnt toast…”

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