Travelling downstream along the Thames added to our progress considerably. A river is quite a different proposition to a canal. No lack of moving water, it being replenished from many feeders and has to be channeled downwards and out to the sea. Many of the locks are left with one set of the paddles open, a definite no-no on canals, where every drop is husbanded. I didn’t really enjoy the automated or manned by a lock keeper locks — not nearly as much fun or exercise!
There are long stretches where you can see nothing apart from the wide river and bushes and trees, then towns with interesting buildings and many ostentatious houses with enormous lawns leading down to the river! These often include docks with equally fancy boats. The boats were noticeably larger and with greater air drafts as we went further down.
Mooring up is tricky along a big river too. All the fancy gardens are clearly labelled “Private – no mooring”. The wild banks have many trees. Sometimes there are fairly smooth sheer bits of bank that might work. At least the river is wide enough that you can turn the boat and go back to a suitable spot — not an option on a canal. I believe it is also done to moor the bow to a tree or a pin and just let the stern fall to the current.
We slowly made headway against the flow. We reached a ‘one boat at a time’ section controlled by a traffic light! You had to push the equivalent of a pedestrian crossing button. When the light changed to green, you could proceed, giving you 12 minutes to reach the lock at the other end. This section wiggled and wound around the Center of Reading taking us right through the middle of a ritzy shopping area, where we formed the entertainment for those drinking at the bars and restaurants on either side. After having exited the next lock, we were happy to tie up for the day.
The Kennet & Avon is different. The first day or two was a mixture of river and canal sections and lots of “Danger” signs. The River Kennet was flowing strongly against us. Wherever it leaves the canal, it swooshes off over a weir, sucking your boat to that side. For the period that it runs as the waterway it works against you, and where it enters the canal, it pushes you across (often just as you approach a lock). The locks here are very large and somewhat aggressive, not at all consistent in size and method of operation.
Here in Wiltshire, the rolling hills and unspoiled scenery are glorious with villages few and far. In them, thatched cottages abound. The canal took us uphill for 3 days and once we passed the summit headed down to Bristol.
We did our usual crack of dawn attack on the Caen Hill Locks. We had about an hour to go before we reached them and we were just in the first lock when the thunder clouds rolled in and drenched us. Fortunately it wasn’t very cold rain and working the locks kept us warm.
These locks were distinctly heavy and we were just getting a system worked out between us (each set seems to be different), when up popped a couple of Canal & River Trust volunteers offering assistance! As there were no other boats around, they stuck with us most of the way despite the deluges. We cleared the 29 locks in about 5 hours.
We had planned to pump out, get rid of rubbish and take water in the sleepy little town of Bradford-On-Avon but, as we reached the bottom of the locks, there were suddenly a lot more boats! A fair was being held and the quays were brimming with people. Luckily for us there was a CRT guy on the quayside ensuring that the sanitary berth was only being used for its intended purpose and we left as soon as we were done. The towpath was awash with people, dogs and bikes and also heavily wooded.
Eventually we found a spot where we could moor in – a concrete ledge prevented us from getting fully alongside, but gave us a grandstand view of a string of frazzled hire boaters failing to make the next bend.
Next we worked our way west until we connected with the River Avon. The intersections between canal and river were less frequent and the current not as strong. Here we encountered a bit of a problem: in order to secure to a rough bank, you had to be able to get off the boat to drive in mooring pins, but we had no boarding plank suitable for bridging the gap!
We reached the final lock that released us onto the Avon and called the lock at the Bristol Docks to check that their lock was open and headed on downriver. Both gates of the entry dock were open, we tied up and paid our dues and then chugged on into the Bristol Floating Harbour.
After a fair stretch of Feeder Canal we turned into the heart of Bristol. Tall buildings both ancient and modern, exotic bridges, and all manner of boats, coastal vessels, harbour ferries, water taxis, Dutch barges, sailing, tugs, historic exhibits, gigs, paddle boards, with narrowboats being in the minority. We spent the afternoon being tourists, and evening watching the harbour traffic. The harbour was impressively well organized, with visitor moorings and facilities for water, rubbish and sewage in several locations, and the harbour was immaculately free of trash.
We have become fairly adept at planning day visits from friends and family! Arrange to meet up at a location where they can leave their car and access the canal, enjoy a day together, then plan the departure at a canal side pub where a taxi can be obtained to take them back the 6 or so miles that we have achieved.
We had a full shopping list request for our good friends who visited last week, top of which was a 2 meter long plank! They were happy to oblige and we are now equipped with our own official boarding plank.
Meanwhile, back at home, we are continuing with our weekly half-price sales: this week we’re featuring my Aqueduct Hat and Tea Cozy pattern! I had so much fun designing this project–an homage to the Pontsycllte Aqueduct in Wales and a lovely knit for the narrow boaters and tea drinkers in your life!