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The 1999 "Earnest" Maiden Voyage Cruise

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11. Birmingham to Lechlade via, Worcester and Birmingham, Northern Stratford, Grand Union, Southern Oxford Canals and River Thames.

Monday 9th August saw us have a lie in and then go to the Sea Life Centre. We were going to stop in Birmingham until the next day, but at lunch time we made the snap decision to leave and escape the clutches of Birmingham that night. This start was made at 12.10pm, going out of Birmingham the quick way via the Worcester and Birmingham Canal. At Kings Norton Junction we turned left down the Northern Stratford Canal. There was another boat coming up the Worcester and Birmingham, he also turned in behind us. Neil noticed the boat as being Jim Shead's "Lorna Ann". Linda jumped off to open the second bridge, a manual swing bridge. She also let "Lorna Ann " through, as it was hot on our tail, she then legged it up to the Brandwood Tunnel and jumped on at the entrance. This proved interesting as a fibreglass cruiser was moored virtually at the tunnel entrance. The next bit of the canal is slightly oppressive in a suburban kind of way, though not as bad as the long cutting sections of the Grand Union exit from Birmingham. There were some new visitor moorings by Bridge 5, there was no one there and we can not imagine them ever being used much. Just after the Draw Bridge No 8 (Windlass and B.W. key) there was a curiously over extended pub "The Drawbridge". After this the countryside opens out and it becomes more pleasant. Since our last visit to the Northern Stratford (1996) the towpath and wash wall works have now been finished along with some token dredging. This canal is certainly much improved since our early excursions, when there was virtually no wash wall or towpath! The level from Birmingham through to here seemed to be still up from the amount of rain we had had in the last couple of days. Linda really wanted to stop at the top of the Lapworth Flight, but there was no suitable pub and Neil fancied trying to stop near the bottom of the flight to go to "The Boot" pub. What made our mind up was the amount of messing about beyond the boatyard and moorings at Bridge No27. A hire boat pushed through the Draw Bridge No28 coming the other way even though we had opened it. Beyond this there was an elderly couple in a full length narrowboat who were trying to go down the flight backwards instead of turning in the winding point just below Bridge No27. Amazingly they let us pass them and go into the Top Lock No2 (the unused guillotine stop lock "feature" at King's Norton Junction is Lock No1) We arrived here at 5.35pm. As we were going down "Earnest" disgraced it's self, the throttle cable broke. Neil thought sod it and we carried on. To facilitate this Neil removed the engine covers and operated the throttle with the boat hook! "The Boot" is in the long (ish) pound after Lock No14 of the Lapworth Flight. Neil had an interesting time navigating down the 13 locks as there was a lot of water going round the by-weirs! He really needed three hands to operated the tiller and the boat hook "throttle" in conjunction with the gear lever! Most of the short pounds seem to have alarming bends in them. After a few bumpy entrances into locks we settled down to our normal speed, loosing the hire boat who was breathing down our back! Linda was not pleased by this evening jaunt, but we did manage to get the last visitor mooring outside "The Boot". Neil gave a sigh of relief! This area is pretty affluent and "The Boot" had been transformed, rightly or wrongly into a trendy and popular venue, with a bistro upstairs. On the whole we thought that it worked, we managed to get a table in the restaurant which was surprisingly packed for a Monday night. The excellent meal was reasonably priced.


The next morning Neil phoned Aquafax in Braunston as he knew they sold Teleflex cables and controls. They were very helpful and phoned back stating that their nearest dealer was Stephen Goldborough at Knowle. Neil phoned them up just to check, they offered to come out, but Neil said he would cycle there. The mountain bike was soon out of its home in the engine compartment and assembled. Neil cut across the junction with the Grand Union on the road then went up the Grand Union and passed the Knowle Flight. Neil has never had to replace a control cable before so he took the old one to match it up. Stephen was about and his mechanic soon matched up the cable. It cost a reasonable 21 and after a chat Neil was on his way back. The cable was soon on and we set off at 12.35am down the last 5 locks to the reinstated Lapworth Link. This is the direct cut with the Grand Union, which we reached at 1.15pm. There was a bit of traffic on the Grand Union, but it was moving along OK. Hatton Top Lock was reached at 3.05pm and we went straight in, but waited for an approaching hire boat. Another boat had only just started and when they saw Peter, all keen and on the bike, they waited for us in the second lock. We swapped allegiances and settled down to a fairly fast and clear descent. The couple on the 40ft Springer narrowboat were very friendly, they had bought their boat from Harefield Marina and had kept it there for a while.  Neil did not remember them as they were in a different part of the marina, but they did remember "Beatty". We arrived at the bottom of the Hatton Flight at 5.10pm, and just continued on to the moorings above the two Cape Locks, stopping for the night at 5.20pm. After dinner on the boat we walked the stub of the Saltisford Arm and followed its course beyond its present end by the railway embankment, into town.


We started the next day, Wednesday 11th August at 7.45pm. It was a dull cloudy day and we wondered if we would see the total eclipse of the sun due in the morning. Radford Bottom Lock was reached at 9.45am, after traversing the Avon valley sump of the Grand Union. A new feature of the 1930's widened locks up to the Braunston pound has been the fitting of remote controlled submersible back pumps in the remains of the old narrow locks which are now used as by weirs. When we last came through here in 1997 temporary pumps, often with their own generator power supply were being trialed. We shared with a variety of other boats including for the most part, a hire boat crewed with students. They seemed particularly laid back and inept, Linda had to order them around. They just seemed interested in drinking lager!  (worse than that T.N.C. crew!) There was one girl amongst the all male crew, she was not impressed when Linda asked if she was the token female presence enabling "The lads" to hire a boat! The eclipse occurred when we were going up the Fosse Staircase. It was reasonably sunny at the time. The maximum cut off occurred at 11.10am. It became strangely cold, all the birds stopped singing and there was dull shadow less light. Stockton Top Lock was passed at 1.30pm and our student crewed hire boat stopped to go to "The Boat" pub, by Bridge 21. At Ventnor Farm, just before the three Calcutt Locks there was another huge marina in the last stages of construction, no wonder they need so much water in the Braunston pound! We stopped at Calcutt Top Lock for water for of an hour. During this time we had an ice cream and Neil bought a set of spare control cables in Calcutt Boats chandlery. We were heading down the Southern Oxford Canal for the River Thames, so we stopped at 4.30pm, in one of our favourite spots at Napton. The friendly old B.W. lock keeper at Napton, who used to live in the big cottage at the bottom had retired and the cottage was empty. His wife used to run a well stocked boater's store from there. The guy had taken over the shop beside "The Folly" pie pub and had branched out from provisions and food into bike hire. We booked a table in "The Folly" restaurant. Unfortunately the beer and food was not up to much, we hope this was just a Summer staff thing as we have tended to visit it off season in the past.


Thursday 12th August we started off at 6.55am. Napton flight is locked at night until 8.00am, but we know from experience that they only lock the top lock at Marston Doles. No one else had ventured up and we came out at the summit at 8.45am. We had intended to go to one of our favorite Southern Oxford Canal pubs tonight, "The Red Lion" at Cropredy. Linda phoned up, but they replied had we not realised that the Cropredy Folk Festival was due to start and they would not be doing food. Neil exclaimed "Oh no, all those old hairy Fairport Convention fans arriving in their narrowboats!" We ploughed on with the idea we would have to clear Banbury. Fenny Compton marina was passed at 11.55am and Claydon Flight Bottom Lock at 1.35am, after meeting a fair bit coming down. It did indeed get busy around Cropredy, but mainly due to the people who were already moored up. It was a drizzly day, making the Folk Festival nice and muddy.  John Rushbrook went to see his beloved Fairport Convention on Friday. After this we were not held up and we were soon in the building site that was the canal frontage in Banbury. I personally think it has hemmed the canal in, two multi story car parks were right against the canal and god knows what will happen to the old Tooley's dock. I think we should all be glad L.T.C. Rolt is not around to witness this. Eventually we stopped at 8.10pm, just short of Aynho Wharf on some decent piling, unlike the visitor moorings and went to the friendly "Great Western Arms". This pub has a family room with board games, which amused us all.


Friday 13th August was another early start of 7.50am, which saw us making for Oxford. We had agreed to meet up with Ian Clarke + family on "Straight Across" somewhere downstream of Oxford on Saturday and Linda had to depart on Sunday afternoon. An uneventful journey, there was no hold up at Sommerton Deep Lock and we passed Thrupp at 2.20pm. As usual more weight than Linda was needed to get Thrupp lift Bridge to move, Neil and Peter being sufficient. We got stoned by some kids going through grotty Kidlington, between Bridges 227 and 228, in fact a direct hit on the parrot cage, that was rather stupidly out on the front cockpit table. At Kidlington Green Lock we were surprised to meet Nick from Harefield Marina going up the Oxford in his much modified Piper narrowboat "Dragonfly". Dukes cut was passed at 4.20pm. The tidied up "water gypsy" permanent moorings through Wolvercote were much depleted. The factory access Electric Lift Bridge 239A was missing, it was on the hard standing  being strengthened / repaired. Linda injured her foot under the balance beam of the grotty Frenchay Lift Bridge 239. It would appear B.W. are waiting for some money from the builders building some apartments next to this bridge, as this will be their access to the towpath. We managed to find one mooring just above Isis Lock. All the moorings are grotty here with no bank and in desperate need of dredging. Lets hope this will be remedied soon along with the opening up again of the basin for visiting craft. That night we went to our favourite Chinese Restaurant "The Peninsular", which is very established in the "old style" Chinese Cantonese type cooking.


The next day, Saturday 14th August we left at 11.55am, after Linda had done some shopping to keep us "hopeless" ones alive. A fifteen day mooring was purchased at Osney Lock for the exorbitant amount of 60. We got to Abingdon at 1.45am and spent the customary hour on the water point. At this point "Straight Across" was spotted approaching the lock. With Ian soon through we moored up stream, just round the corner, at the point where the Swift Ditch used to cut the corner off. This is a nature reserve and is normally a free mooring. With a lifetime on the River Thames Ian Clarke is very good at sniffing out the free mooring spots.


Sunday 15th August saw the odd pair of craft start off back up the River Thames at 10.40am, destination Osney Bridge, the official head of navigation for craft like "Straight Across" with fixed canopies. At 1.45pm we both found room on the visitor moorings just below Osney Bridge. The great sinking of  "Straight Across" would be tomorrow. Linda left for home at 3.45pm, getting straight to Hillingdon Station on the Oxford Tube bus. That night Sharon, Ian's wife took the kids to Mc Donalds. Later Neil and Ian got an excellent take away Indian meal from "The Park End Spice" restaurant and take away, which is about mile up Park End Street which is the road into Oxford which goes over Osney Bridge. Ian went to bed glad that the level under Osney Bridge seemed about 6 inches down. 


In the morning of Monday 16th August Neil got the outboard and Quicksilver inflatable out of "Earnest's" engine compartment. The old vacuum cleaner kept on "Earnest", which can blow as well as suck, soon blew up the tender.  Peter and Ian's children, Nancy and John were soon practising going up and down through Osney Bridge. Ian was upset that the river level now seemed about 3 inches above the normal level. Neil assisted Ian with removing bits from "Straight Across". The spot light and VHF aerial were removed from the canopy roof. The heavy mast had to be taken out of it's bottom bracket and laid on the cabin roof. Ian then moved a lot of forward ballast into the engine compartment. The bilges were then flooded and the six plastic dustbins Ian had taken with him (two were his cleaned out one's from home!), were stood on the stern and filled up with water. We all climbed aboard and Ian requisitioned one other boater to act as ballast. We pulled off and then gingerly crept under the centre of the curved girders of Osney Bridge. Neil recons there was about three inches spare dead centre, so no room for much of an error! Neil and Peter were dropped off to walk back and get "Earnest" and we both set off at 12.10pm. We stopped above Kings Lock on the North bank, just up stream from the backwater to Duke's Cut. It was warm but blowing up for a storm, Neil, Ian and the kids went for a swim  and then the kids played around in Ian's two canoes and his little tender "River Tramp". We were intending to go straight back on the River Thames, so Ian, Neil and the kids decided to "do" Duke's Cut. We went up Duke's Cut, through the lock and turned and then came back again. Ian was impressed that a B.W. workman tidying up the lock surrounds brickwork acted as a lock keeper, "Just like being on the Thames!" he said. We started off again as it started to rain at 4.10pm, with the destination of the visitor moorings just above Pinkhill Lock. Neil departed company above Eynsham Lock to get some very expensive diesel at Oxford Cruisers which involved reversing back up a narrow inlet to an awkwardly sited pump. Neil eventually stopped as planned at 6.00pm and met up with Ian. 


It was a sunny morning on Tuesday 17th August, so we stayed put while the children played around in the water. We eventually shoved off at 11.45pm and apart for a very quick filling water stop just above Shifford Lock we motored on up to the visitor moorings just below Radcot Bridge. These are situated on the island formed where the channel splits in two. Above Shifford Lock Ian insisted that Neil lead through the wiggly bit above, as he thought it better two narrow boats should collide first, warning him of the approach of yet more of these clumsy "Sewer Tubes".  We arrived there at 5.10 pm. Peter, Wendy, Nancy and John then immediately went off in Ian's small craft for a "Swallows and Amazons" type investigation of the back waters at this fascinating spot. The bridge spanning the non navigation channel is the oldest surviving on the River Thames. That night we all went out for a nice pint and meal at the very old and unspoilt "Swan Hotel". 


Wednesday 18th August saw another late start at 12.20pm. We stopped at 1.30pm on the little wharf at Kelmscot, as Ian wanted to visit the "Plough Inn". This certainly was a gem of a pub, completely unspoilt. At 3.00pm we were off again, arriving at the visitor moorings just below Ha'penny Bridge in Lechlade at 5.00pm. It was a reasonable evening so Neil got "Earnest's" inflated tender of the roof and set it all up. Peter them spent the early evening ferrying Wendy, Nancy and john all over the place. That night we all had a take away Indian meal from the "Shugondha" Restaurant. The meal was good, but on the expensive side as we had over ordered. That night on "Straight Across" the adults stayed up quite late trying to drink the wine cellars from both boats dry. 


Thursday 19th August "Earnest" stayed put, this was for a few days, more about that in a moment. Since all the rigors of getting "Straight Across" under Osney Bridge, Ian's back had been playing up and today he was in agony. Neil was going to have to leave with Peter and Wendy the next day to enable them to get back to Harefield via the River Thames before the Thames license ran out. Just after lunch Neil and Peter took the decision to go as far up the River Thames as far as possible in "Earnest's" tender. The other object was to see how far up it would be practicable to get "Earnest" and also if it was feasible to wind. With Captain Pete at the helm, we proceeded up the River at a fair pace, even though Ian thought that the River was up a bit from normal. Above Inglesham Round House (Last full length winding point and junction with the moribund Thames and Severn Canal.) this was uncharted territory. Above here the reeds and over hanging branches began to encroach to the degree that without a lot of pruning no narrowboat would be going up here, unless you were not worried about the paintwork, or pushing a window in. About a mile and a half up there were about 5 small (Under 20ft) cruisers moored to one bank. It could be noted that the trees and bushes had been kept back enough for these craft to pass down stream. Very soon we came to a wide treeless section where you could turn a 40ft narrowboat. 
From here we soon had to slow down and stop several times to clear the prop from rushes that at some points extended from bank to bank. Also overhanging thorn bushes had to be broken away as we did not want to bang into these in an inflatable boat on our  faster less controlled return. We continued on like this until Hannington Bridge. Here the water seemed surprisingly deep and the air draught only sufficient for a narrowboat. Ian Clarke said that on his last year canoe to Cricklade the water under Hannington Bridge was so shallow that he had to get out. Ian also said that there were big rocks sticking out of the water. The flow was certainly fast here and we just managed to get through the flattened rushes just after the bridge. Just after here there is a water pumping station on the North bank, where we had to stop and clear the prop.  We got up about another mile when we stopped to clear the prop again, with Peter hanging on to a bush to steady the boat. 
It was at this point disaster struck for the engine was not out of gear! Neil's finger was cleanly sliced through under the first joint from the knuckle. Neil held it altogether, but in Peter's panic he jumped away from the engine and as he was wearing the safety stop lanyard, the engine stopped! Peter in his panic could not start the engine so Neil had to release his grip on his finger and start the engine. It had taken us over two hours to get up this far and we had not taken the mobile phone! There is no way that any ambulance could reach us here any way. Fortunately we had cleared a path back. Peter to his credit, then went full throttle back to Ha'penny Bridge, it took under an hour and because of the speed we did not get weeded up. At our mooring Neil bundled himself up the bank, shouted for Ian, who soon had an ambulance called to meet us at the bridge. Still holding his finger together Neil then got together his mobile and a few essentials and walked up with Ian to a lay-by just to the South of the bridge. As we got there the ambulance arrived and within half an hour Neil was in The Princess Margaret Hospital in Swindon. On the way the paramedic, using an electric gizmo were glad to report that Neil still had a pulse in the end of his finger. Overnight they pumped him full of antibiotics and gave him a tetanus jab (Neil had never had one!) The next afternoon they sewed it back together. Two tendons were cut, the one going to the end, which moves the finger top joint and one side of the "Y" tendon that moves the next joint down. Neil had to stay in until Monday 23rd July, when Jackie, Julian's wife kindly came out and rescued him.


Radford Bottom Lock, first up from Leamington, Grand Union Canal. New permanent submersible back pumps installed in by-weirs, which were the old narrow locks. 

Tooley's old dry dock at Banbury. What will it look like when it is stuffed and mounted? Southern Oxford Canal.

Banbury being "redeveloped". Southern Oxford Canal.

Banbury Lock and "warehouse" style redevelopment virtually coming out of lock chamber. Southern Oxford Canal.

New bridge below Banbury Lock. Southern Oxford Canal.

Approach to Oxford via Wolvercote. Factory Electric Lift bridge No 239A. Bridge is on hard standing being strengthened / repaired.

Osney Bridge, River Thames. Ian and Sharon getting "Straight Across" ready to squeeze under the bridge.

Ready for the off.

Peter sitting amongst the water ballast.

Will it fit?

Yes, just!

"Earnest" and Straight Across", an unlikely pair, moored just below Ha'penny Bridge, Lechlade, River Thames..

Peter and Neil setting out to conquer the Upper Upper River Thames! Ha'penny Bridge, Lechlade.

Approaching Hannington Bridge, should we have tried the non "navigation" arch Ian?

Serious reed growth just up from Hannington Bridge. We got nearly to Kempsford, way to Cricklade before Neil's accident.

Our destination, not reached. The bridge at Cricklade, from a walk the Arlidge's and Clarke's did just before Christmas 1999.

The "pool" just below Cricklade Bridge, where Ian got to in 1998 in his canoe.

On Cricklade Bridge, from our walk video.

The tour concludes...


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