The Hendersons       Getting to England and four days on the Grand Union Canal


England and Guernsey - 2001

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Narrow Boating

The Cotswolds





Narrow Boating on the Grand Union Canal

Sunday, June 17 - Leave Seattle

BA flight 48 Seattle –LHR – first time we’ve been seated in the upper deck of a 747.  Much nicer than the main cabin – quieter and the cabin attendant is able to spend more time with the passengers.

Monday, June 18 - Seattle - Berkhamsted - Dudswell Locks

Arrive LHR on time.  New Visa debit card doesn’t work!  Thank heavens we didn’t cancel our ATM, even though there is a usage fee.

Bus from LHR to Hemel Hempstead.  Cell phone junkie in seat in front of us.  Things are the same all over the ‘civilized’ world.  We remember the cell phone junkies in Lisbon last year.  A family of four out to dinner, each with his own cell phone next to his plate.

We take a cab from Hemel Hempstead to Berkhamsted.  Bridgewater Boats is down an obscure lane – very hard to find.  Cabbie drives around the area 10 minutes or so before Tom points her to a dead end leading to the boatyard.

    There’s Mr. Mistoffelees – looks just like his picture on the Web

We get a lesson in crewing Mr. M. from Steve.  Tom will be the captain, Mel is lock mistress.  I’m supposed to operate one of those things?  Mechanically challenged Mel??????

Steve shows us the ins and outs of Mr. M. and we putt to the first lock.  Insert small end of windlass over paddle ratchet.  Turn paddle until it opens and water spills into lock (or out of it, depending on your direction).  Walk over the gate on the balance beam (yes, just like they do in gymnastics) to the other side and open the other paddle.  When the water on both sides of the lock is at the same level, open the gate nearest the boat by pushing the balance beam.  Tom guides Mr. M through the first lock.  Mel closes the lock, lowers the paddles, boards the boat.  Steve bids us farewell.  We are on our own.  We head to the nearby ‘superstore’ to load up on provisions.  We stock up on basics – our original plan was dinner out tonight, however it is 5 p.m. UK time and we’ve been up 27 hours and are tired.  How about take away Indian. 

Back to Mr. M.   We’ll putt up the canal just a bit.  There is a rail track next to the canal, we want to get away from it so we can have a good night’s sleep.   We head to the next lock.  If the lock is full and the gate is open, Tom putts through, otherwise, it is fill the lock, open the gate, close the gate, empty the lock, open the gate, close the paddle all over again.  Once Tom has guided Mr. M though, he pulls the boat to the bank, and Mel hops on.  Proceed to the next lock, which may be 100 yards ahead (I’ll walk instead of ride the boat) or a mile ahead. 

Two hours later we try to pull to the bank.  Mr. M. scrapes bottom.  We move out into the middle and see a boat upstream that is grounded.  We pull along-side.  Tom asks if we can pull them out.  They tie up to Mr. M., we pull, they’re free.  A bit further up, we’re grounded.  Mr. M. has a long pole for such emergencies.  We both push against the pole and free our boat.  Steve didn’t tell us about this!  

That night after dinner, Tom reads that if you see a boat grounded and you’re an experienced narrow boater, offer to help.  Experienced?  Well, we’ve had two hours experience before we helped! 

Four hours later – and six locks.  I don’t care about the noise from the train.  I’m tired.  If I see another lock, I”ll scream.  We moor next to the tow path between the two locks at Dudsdale (unless it is sign posted ‘private’ you can moor anywhere along the towpath as long as you aren’t  next to a lock).  We eat the take-away we bought in Berkhamstad and drink a pretty good Italian Pinot Grigio, make our bunk and fall asleep.

    Inside Mr. M - dining area/bed and galley

Tuesday, June 19 - Dudswell Locks - Marsworth Locks

Not the most restful sleep – the bunk is hard and the pillows too soft, but Tuesday dawns fairly blue and warm. 

We breakfast on European orange juice (not at all like our OJ), coffee, English sausage (never ask what is in them – they are real artery cloggers, but they sure taste good) and a cake given to us by the boat yard people. 

Let’s take a look at the map – how far up the Grand Union Canal have we gone – what only 3 miles.  We might not even make Leighton Buzzard! 

After breakfast we get organized.  Hope the water doesn’t run out before we make Cowroast.  There’s supposed to be a trash dump and water filling station there.

    Swans with their chicks

We notice birds we don’t have the in the US.  A moor hen, brazen. Stretches along the canal remind us of footage from “The African Queen.”  This is supposed to be England.  The vegetation is lush, the birds exotic. A heron, eyeing dinner as he’s perched on the bank – he leaves just as I get the camera ready.  A magpie, brash and beautiful reminds us of Rossini’s “La Gazza Ladra” overture (“The Thieving Magpie”), ducks and ducklings, swallows, a pair of swans and seven cygnets, swimming majestically across the canal. 

Lunch is a baguette, English cucumber and brie sandwich, a bit of mineral water and some good old Cadbury’s chocolate.  We are both aware that we need to have the boat docked for the night before we drink anything alcoholic.  Falling into the Grand Union Canal is definitely not good for your health! 

We moor at Twing and assemble Tucats.  This is a bit of a challenge, given the confines of Mr. M and the towpath with its necklace of stinging nettle.  However, once assembled, he performs beautifully.  The riders, well, their performance isn’t so great.  We’ve driven in the UK many times, but for some reason, riding is so confusing.  Both Tom and I are disoriented.  Is that car in our lane or the lane opposite?  I look at my rear view mirror attached to my glasses and can’t tell.  Tom tries to read from his rear view mirror attached to Tucats.  It takes 10-15 minutes of very cautious riding before we are comfortable and get the hang of riding on the opposite side of the road. 

Tring is a sweet town.  We buy a canal guidebook and head back to Mr. M. 

Six locks later and only two miles we are in Marsworth.  Since we are nearly out of food we decide to moor here for the night and have a pub dinner.  Tom pilots Mr. M. along close to the downside of the lock.  A duck and her young cross our path – one of the ducklings is separated from his family.  Tom tries to slow Mr. M. down, the duckling tries desperately to cross the bow, gives up.  Mr. M. passes by.  Glory be!  There’s mom and the rest of the family.  Tiny feet propel him ” above the water to the brown safety of mother duck. 

The White Hart is next to the canal.  Dinner is the mediocre type that most people think typifies English cooking (we’ve found that mediocre cooking in England is atypical now, but the stereotype remains). 

What to do with Tucats?  If we bring him inside we won’t have much room.  However, who would steal a bicycle with no seats?  Tom removes the seats and posts, stows them in the stern and we huncker down for the night after listening to the BBC classic, talking and planning tomorrow. 

We plan to make Slapton for lunch tomorrow – there is supposed to be a good pub there – beyond that we’ll go to Linslade to the Globe Inn for dinner.  We’ll also need to get some provisions, probably in Leighton Buzzard.

Living in a 40’ x 7’ space is challenging.  We decide that smaller space is more challenging than a 4600 sq. ft house.  Here, we have to remember where we’ve laid everything. 

We are concerned about fuel and water.  If we run out of fuel, we’ll need to figure out how to get refills, but it is doubtful we’ll find someone who offers dockside services.  And water – yes, the British Waterways provides water, but we’ve got to be careful.  Waste not, want not.  So here we are, two middle age people, no boating experience, but, thank God, fair dexterity and a tolerance and love of each other such that we can spend hours in a confined space without quarrelling.  How many other couples can say that?  

Wednesday , June 20 - Marsworth locks - Leighton Buzzard  

We both wake at 6 a.m.  Adjusting to the time change this trip has been very easy.  The secrets seem to be 1) don’t dehydrate and 2) when you arrive, ignore all temptations to nap.  Stay awake until a normal bedtime. 

We breakfast and shower and head ‘up’ the canal through the Chiltern Hills.  Hills translate to many locks.  You know it is late spring in England – ducks and ducklings, swans and cygnets, sheep and lambs.  One of the locks is next to a large farm.  As we wait for the lock to fill (then empty) we hear the plaintive cry of lambs who have been separated from their mothers.  Their cries float through the soft spring air – it is a sound hundreds of years old. 

At one lock we see a man in a ‘polo’ shirt and jeans – from his looks he could be American.  However, when he comments that ‘tis a middling day’ we know he can’t be. 

This starts me thinking about English accents.  Someone from this county most likely can tell where a person comes from based on his/her accent, but I still can’t tell.  I only know the accents differ. 

Further on we approach an open lock and a beautiful boat is headed in.  We join this boat, the Kingfisher, in the lock.  Tom and the captain chat, the ‘lock mistress’ and I likewise.  Over the course of several locks we piece their story together.  They’ve sold their older house in Devon and bought their boat.  It is a 60’ narrow boat.  They plan to live on it three years, while they are still able to stand the rigors of canal life.  She had a serious illness some time ago and wasn’t expected to recover.  Since she recovered, they decided that they needed to take full advantage of their remaining years together.  Tom and I understand this fully.  While we are both blessed with great good health, who knows – we could end up tomorrow with a serious illness or accident.  We’ve got to have balance to our lives.  We can’t spend every bit of our savings now, but we have got to make the most of the days when we are both healthy.  

We reach Slapton lock.  A woman is opening the lock – Tom attempts to pull to the left bank.  The Kingfisher is behind us.  The wind whips Mr. M. around.  I’m on the bank, Tom is in Mr. M., not able to head in the right direction. DAMN.  Kingfisher goes into the lock, Tom heads downstream to a winding point and turns the boat around.  He brings the boat back, and we manage another lock. 

We tie up just north and assemble Tucats for a peddle to Slapton for lunch.  We lunch at the Carpenters’ Arms – prawns and avocado.  Tom has pint and I have tea.  What a lovely lunch. 

We head toward Leighton Buzzard.  There is water and refuse station there, as well as a Tescos.  We’ve read about a pub – the Globe Inn that has excellent reviews. 

We get to the last lock just past Leighton Buzzard.  A man helps us “I’ll take care of it, love.”  He and another man own a house next to the lock.  They go there on weekends (except this is Wednesday).  He recommends the Globe Inn as well. 

We continue up the canal, past the Globe, looking for a turn around and winding point.  We pass the Kingfisher moored just off the Globe.  We chug back to the Globe, tie up and change clothes. 

We are early for dinner, so order wine and sit next to the canal until our table is ready.  We ponder on this life style compared to most in the US – so much more relaxed and friendly. 

Dinner is lamb noisettes with an orange and red wine sauce and fresh vegies.  The meal is excellent. 

We head back to Mr. M and have a glass of wine, some very good chevrie and Abernathy biscuits.  What a great finish to a great day. 

Thursday, June 21 - Leighton Buzzard - Marsworth Locks  

The day dawns full of promise – the longest day of the year, only a few clouds.  The BBC promises us a good day as far as weather is concerned. 

We are a bit anxious to make a fair distance today so that we are assured of returning the boat on time Saturday. 

We’ve decided we will moor near Marsworth tonight but we don’t want to have dinner at the White Lion again.  We’ll stop at Leighton Buzzard and get dinner fixings. 

As we are preparing Mr. M. for the journey, a local man stops for a chat.  He’s reading a history of the Grand Union Canal (I’d love to read that).  He tells us we must see Wells Cathedral.  His pronunciation makes it sound like “Wales Cathedral.” 

We head downstream for an uneventful morning.  We chat with people in some of the locks.  The traffic is heavier today.

                More narrow boats, and some whimsey

        Mr. M approaches a lock

    He almost looks like he knows what he is doing

We stop in Leighton Buzzard for provisions.  I make a discovery at Tescos – a fully prepared ‘take away’ Indian dinner – basmati rice, naan, onion bhajis, chicken tikka masala, chicken korma, chicken madras and veg curry.  Heat it at home and you have a complete Indian meal for ₤9.99. 

The locks are much busier today than we’ve seen thus far - must be because it is getting close to the weekend.  We meet a fellow from Montreal who has immigrated – he has a beautiful custom built boat, which he pilots himself.  We meet another man who must not know much about Americans – he things we all drive big cars – I tell him I drive a Honda and Tom a Jaguar.  We must be all right after all. 

I’d like to read a history of the canals.  It is hard to believe such a complex system was built by men wielding picks and shovels.  As we learn more about the canals we realize you could see much of England and Wales as well as parts of Scotland at the leisurely canal pace (not that many would be patient enough to do that though – or have the leisure time.) 

One of the people at a lock tells me that the telecommunications people (cable TV and cell phones, I think) are laying cable in the canal.  British Waterways collects a fee, which they use for canal improvements.  It is a win for everyone – no ugly cables running across the landscape, money to improve the canals and better communication for rural folk. 

As we go along the locks, we see milestones measuring the distance to Braunston.  This was apparently the production center for the goods that were carried along the Grand Union Canal.  We look at the map for Braunston – for what appears to have been a very important center at one time, it appears to have largely died out by now.

    A charming cottage alongside the canal

    Swans don't like dogs

At Slapton we team up with a couple on a hire boat, the Marple (Agatha Christie’s character?).  We go through several locks together.  Fortunately the swing bridge is open, so we don’t have to wrestle it.  On our way up I struggled to open the swing bridge and finally had to have Tom’s help to close it. 

We moor at Marsworth as intended.  Before dinner we walk through the village.  As best we can tell, there is no traditional village – just a pub and the church.  As we get closer to Mr. M. we see a gray heron on the bank of the canal – looking for dinner.  Tom manages a photo before he takes off. 

    Gray Heron on the bank near Marsworth

Friday , June 22 - Marsworth Locks - Berkhamstad 

Today is our last full day on the canal.  We’ve got 13 locks and five miles ahead of us.  The formula for time is (# of locks + # of miles)/3= # of hours.  It should take us about six hours to make Berkhamstad. 

We didn’t fill water yesterday, so we skip showers until we can top off.  The canal isn’t as busy today, so we go through the first locks alone. 

As we move slowly down the canal, I am struck by the similarity between the canal and films I’ve seen of tropical rivers – lush vegetation, very active bird life, isolation from ‘civilized’ man. 

After getting water at Bulborne lock, we pull to the bank, tie up, have our showers and lunch on leftovers. 

We continue to Cowroast lock (funny name, that).  There’s lots of activity at Cowroast.  A team of four boats needs to be back to Berkhamstad by 3 p.m.  That’s quite a distance.  We help them with the locks, and let them pull ahead of us.  In turn, they leave open the downstream locks for us so we don’t have to wait for them to fill. 

We top off again at Cowroast lock and continue on our way. 

Every lock is different.  Some have ground paddles, some gate paddles, some have both.  The balance beams may be wood, metal or metal shell filled with concrete.  Some gates shift easily, others are very difficult – you can’t tell by looking at them.  Some locks fill very quickly, others seem to take forever.  However, these canals are an engineering marvel turned into a wonderful park used by boaters, cyclists, walkers, joggers and fisherman, along with thousands of birds, with the banks covered by endless vegetation.  To think they had been largely abandoned mid-last century.  It is wonderful that they have been preserved and restored. 

At last we make our destination.  We tie up and get Tucats out.  We need to get a phone card and call the credit union about our debit card.  We also need to make sure that we can leave our luggage at Bridgewater while we get our rental car. 

International phone cards aren’t easy to find.  We tried Tescos a few days ago, today we try the post office – still no luck.  Finally we find one at “Bobbie’s Convenience Store.”  Many false starts later we get through to the credit union.  Seemingly there is no reason for our debit card not to work.  The credit union rep is going to work on the problem and e-mail us as she gets more information. 

By now we are footsore and stiff.  We return to Mr. M, finish our leftovers and begin packing.  We’ve got to have Mr. M. in by 9 am so we can’t lay around tomorrow.  After we return him, we have to pick up our car and head toward Bath, where we plan to ride Tucats a bit before going to our lodging.

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