Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Back on the Buses

Back on the buses - Around the County Towns.

 Since selling Starcross, which I now realise was eight years ago (!), I've been spending more time pursuing my other interests, principally buses.  Between 2015 and 2017 I undertook a bus tour Around the Edge of England, using my free bus pass and I followed that up in 2018 by beginning a similar exercise, this time visiting every English county and every county town, in what I called my "Around the County Towns" tour.

In September 2019, having reached Huntingdonshire, I had reason to pause the exercise, fully expecting to be able to recommence in the Spring.  We all know what happened next.

Buses and trains were recognised as a potential problem as far as the virus was concerned early-on and the government went into overdrive on its "avoid public transport at all costs" messaging. So effective was this that almost immediately bus use fell to 10% of pre-pandemic levels (train use fell to 5%). Even now, with all restrictions lifted and life pretty much back to normal for most people, the buses are still missing about 20% of the passengers they once had.  With the last of the "emergency support package" funding due to run out in October, and service cuts expected to follow, I thought it was high time to get back on the buses and do my bit by resuming my journey.

Not all the issues that led to the original suspension of the project in 2019 have been resolved, so I had to start slowly and see how things went, but last week I was able to restart, visiting the Isle of Ely and Cambridgeshire on a two-day trip "Around the County Towns". I have a separate blog for the trip and anyone interested can read all about it here.

Wednesday, 27 October 2021

The 50th Anniversary Trip - Days 7 & 8: Atherstone to Rugby Wharf

 Thursday 7th October 2021

Day 7  Atherstone to Newbold

There is not a lot to say about today's boating. After we got away from Atherstone we settled down to enjoy the long, lock-free stretch of the Coventry Canal, passing a very run-down Hartshill yard shortly after setting off.

Ken was at the helm for the 180 degree turn at Hawkesbury Junction.  He realised straight away that he had started his turn too late, but then - like many occasional steerers - failed to put any "welly" on, meaning that he had to have a few shunts to get round. He didn't actually hit anything - even the badly moored boat just above the stop lock - so I gave him a B+.  The "watchers-on-the-bridge" may have thought differently!

In 1971 we had found the time to go all the way down the arm into Coventry and back, which in those days was considered quite an adventure, but there was no enthusiasm for it today, so after I'd penned us through the stop lock that really was it for the day, with the only other feature of note being the footbridge across the cut at Brinklow, which was mildly amusing I suppose.

"Grebe" at Coventry Basin in 1971.  It's changed a bit since then!

Ken opening the footbridge at Brinklow

and hurrying to catch up with boat afterwards!

Wilow Wren had told us that the boat needed to be back at their base for 08.30 on Friday, but when we asked whether we could bring it back the night before, to save us a rushed start in the morning,we were told this wasn't possible. The obvious stopping place for the night was therefore Newbold, where we were pleased to see a mooring space outside the Barley Mow. It was only after we had struggled to tie up there and complained about the state of what we assumed was a visitor mooring that we realised we were on the well-hidden and badly signed water point!  By now it was not far off dusk and as we would be away very early in the morning we decided to play the "ignorant hire boaters" card and stay where we were.

Like many pubs these days the Barlow Mow looks inviting from the outside...

The Barley Mow
...but inside it has, unfortunately, been mucked about with in ways that have left it with an incoherent and rather unfriendly, un-publike layout. In fairness though, the food was good and I'm told the beer got better as the evening wore on, although I was back on the boat by then.

Friday, 8th October 2021

Day 8 Newbold to Rugby Wharf

We'd assumed that Willow Wren had asked us to be back by 08.30, an hour earlier than stated in the brochure, in order to stagger arrivals and prevent mixing on the wharf due to Covid.  But no, it seemed that everyone had been given the same arrival time, resulting in a convoy of boats approaching the arm on which the base is situated at the same time.  A boat coming from the south had to wind before it could enter the arm (we'd had to do the opposite manoeuvre when leaving a week ago) and then it was our turn to follow it almost back to the wharf where we'd all been asked to wind again before reversing onto the wharf itself. By the time we had winded, there was a third boat waiting its turn.

The company were taking Covid precautions very seriously and we were asked to vacate the boat as soon as we had tied up, irrespective of any last-minute cleaning and tidying up and the crew were asked to wait in a designated spot whilst Mark and I, as the "designated crew members", completed the hand-back formalities.

With those done we all set off to walk to the station where Pete, Clive and I boarded a northbound train to take us to Manchester, Lancaster and Cambridge (via Nuneaton) respectively; Ken and Mark headed westwards to Wolverhampton and Oxford, leaving Spike to make a lonelier journey back to Slough.

Hire Boating v. Ownership

Having owned a boat for ten years, this was the first hire-boating I'd done for over twenty. It does have certain advantages:

  • Cost.  The week, including the daytime food kitty, cost us £175 each. Boat owners will recognise that sum as small change when it comes to boating.
  • Lack of worry.  The broken alternator - and anything else that might have gone wrong - was fixed by a simple phone call to the boatyard.  A more serious failure would presumably have resulted in a replacement boat and/or a refund.

But also some disadvantages:

  • When hiring you commit yourself to a route and a timetable which, especially if you do a "ring", can be difficult to change. We had a couple of days when the weather was such that on Starcross I would have declared a "cabin day" and not bothered untying.
  • As part of a crew, especially an all-male crew, there is an expectation that every night will be spent in the pub!  Much as I like pubs that wasn't the way things were on Starcross (believe it or not).
So would I do it again?  Well, not for a while and then perhaps with a smaller and more select crew and definitely, although I'm now showing my age, on a less-ambitious route!

Sunday, 24 October 2021

The 50th Anniversary Trip - Day 6: Dog & Doublet to Atherstone

 Wednesday, 6th October 2021

Sunrise at the Dog & Doublet moorings


The early risers amongst the crew were rewarded by a spectacular sunrise as they prepared to untie and set off on another long day's run, with Atherstone as the target for the night.

Bloody Hire Boaters 

With seven of us onboard, some of whom had by now worked out how to use the shower, the first task was to take on water and this could be accomplished at Fazeley Junction.  The water point here is not ideally suited for boats coming from the south as it involves making the right turn on to the Coventry Canal and then reversing a boat length or two to reach it.  I had almost completed the turn and glanced behind before preparing to reverse when I saw a boat coming up behind. I pointed and shouted that I was headed for the water point, but the steerer kept coming, choosing to come between me and the towpath on my inside.  By the time I'd got the bow out of his way and he'd passed without a collision (or a word of thanks!) I was in a hopeless position for the water point, resulting in much manoeuvring with the engine and the shaft to get to it.

Whilst we were filling the tank a couple off a boat on the moorings came along and in response to my greeting, the lady said "I won't tell you what my husband has just said about typical hire boaters!"  As I doubt that they had seen the incident in its entirety it just goes to show that you shouldn't pass judgement without knowing the full story.

As Glascote Bottom Lock  I was reminded how much the cut has changed in the last fifty years, and how much less interesting it has become. On the 1973 boat trip my partner Hilary, who was on Willow Wren's "Guillemot", took this photo of Union Canal Carriers' "Bexhill", on which I was captain, leaving the lock.

Glascote Bottom Lock 1973

I wasn't really sure it was the same place when I took the 2021 photo, but the unusual roof line of the lock cottage is a giveaway...

and again, in 2021

After that it was a pleasant, but uneventful, day on the Coventry Canal.  Jeanette, who had been staying in holiday accommodation in Kenilworth whilst her husband Hugh was on the boat, joined us for the afternoon near Polesworth, having had some difficulty in parking her car in Atherstone due to road closures for a cycle race before walking back down the towpath to meet us.

Bloody Hire Boaters (again)

As we started up the Atherstone flight there was a minor incident with another boat at lock 6, which no doubt led its crew to roll their eyes and say "bloody hire-boaters" (although if they did they didn't let us see it).
Ken and Jeanette waiting for lock 6

Ken was holding Grebe perfectly in position waiting for the lock to empty. I suppose it might have been a clue if he had realised that two of the people leaning on the lock gates weren't part of our crew, but neither they nor Mark, who was one of us ,seems to have mentioned that there was a boat descending in the lock and which would need to come out before we could go in!  As a result, Ken's expert handling was all in vain...

Why didn't anyone tell me?

It wasn't as serious as the incident in 1973 when we arrived at the bottom of the flight when it was already dark, but decided to go up anyway. Approaching the top we were stopped by an irate lock-keeper who told us in no uncertain terms that we shouldn't have done it and that he would now have to walk back down the flight to check that all was in order after our passage. I did manage to deflect some of his ire by telling him that there was another boat - our companions on Guillemot - behind us in the hope that he would reserve some of his anger for them!

Back in 2021 there was then a debate about where we should stop for the night. The crew of a downhill boat had told us that the moorings above the top lock were choc-a-bloc. The alternative was to tie up lower down the flight, near the A5, although this would mean a much longer walk into the town that evening.  Pete went ahead to check the situation at the top, but in the meantime the rest of us decided that we would press on to the top anyway as the information we'd had from the other boat would be over an hour out of date and, rather optimistically, some boats may have moved on. Hugh was also leaving us at Atherstone and it would have been a long way for him to walk with his luggage, even if Jeanette could remember where she had been forced to abandon her car due to the cycle race.

The moorings above the lock were indeed full, but by asking nicely, Mark persuaded canal trader Kay on "Pea Green"  to move up to create a space long enough for Grebe just beyond the bridge and opposite the atmospheric remains of what was once Atherstone's largest hat factory.
Wilson & Stafford's Britannia Hat Works

Thank you, Kay, and in return here is a link to your website: Kay's Canal Crafty Arts.