The Yank Returns
Part 2

Monday - Friday June17th to 21st - Narrowboat Cruise on the Grand Union Canal

On previous trips I'd been intrigued by the English system of canals and the narrowboats that travelled them. Jim and Dolly had owned one named Frumble for a while and were familiar with how one travels by canal. So in planning this trip we decided that a week-long cruise on a canal was just the sort of thing that a visiting Yank needed to experience and with over 1500 miles of navigable canals and rivers there was a lot to choose from.

We started Monday off watching a really rough match (USA - 2, Mexico - nil), then we were off to
Blisworth Tunnel Boats Ltd where we took possession of the Sapperton Tunnel, a 56-foot-long narrowboat that will be home for a week. Starting from the back of the boat, the Sapperton Tunnel has the pilot's station (tiller & throttle), and the ladder to go below decks. First there's two single berths at the back (Tom & Chris), then a double berth for Jim & Dolly, then the bathroom, kitchen/lounge, settee berth (chosen by the Yank as it was closest to the food & beer supplies), finally seating at the front of the boat that was a great place to enjoy sunrise breakfast and for the youth to gather away from the grown-ups.

The leisurely pace of canal travel allows ample time to watch the passing scene. Many of the narrow boats are floating
works of art. The roses and castles theme is a part of the decoration of every narrow boat.

The canal-side scenery is just amazing…

We even saw one of the communication fire signal baskets; England's predecessor to email. These were last lit country-wide to commemorate the millennium.

Because the "flow" in the canal is mostly related to locking and the passage of barges, the water is usually very still. This leads to great reflections…

After an orientation to all of the controls and accommodations we were off on the first leg. The trip would be generally north and a bit west toward Leicester. This first leg was pretty easy technically; just perfect for getting a feel for how the boat handles. Speed while underway is a leisurely 3-4 mph, just right for lulling the unwary into forgetting the basic rules of inertia. Steering is also unique. That LONG 56 foot boat does NOT 'turn on a dime.'

Given that we started in the afternoon we made about three hours and tied up just past the village of Bugbrooke. Why here exactly? Well, one of the nice attributes of the canal navigation maps is that in addition to all the expected stuff like locks, marinas, etc. they also list pubs and local shops that are handy to the canal. There's a nice four-star pub called the Five Bells where we went for dinner. We enjoyed a local three-piece jazz band while we ate. A local farm pate and steak & kidney pie was just what I needed to fend off starvation. The pub had a
great philosophy as well as a nice pint.

We started off Tuesday morning with a
classic English breakfast (bacon, eggs, sausage, port) enjoyed on the "front porch" as the fog lifted off the water. We made a quick stop to add a flagpole so that we could fly flags together in anticipation of an England - USA cup final! This leg got more challenging; tighter turns, locks, and the Crick tunnel. The first locks encountered were Whilton and Buckby; 7 locks in total. In addition to a lock-keeper, most of the larger lock flights also have a nice pub which is perfect for a refreshing pint and a bit of lunch.

The locking process is fairly involved. While waiting for other barges to lock through, it's a great time to
socialize and to get advice on the locking process.

The locks are an integral part of the canal system. They allow the barges to go uphill and downhill. They can be a
complex flight of locks, with a lock keeper or a simple, single country lock. The lock consists of a lock chamber that can vary from small (7 feet wide x 70 feet long - just the size of a narrow boat) to large, holding four barges. Getting lined up for some of the small locks is tricky.

Water flow is controlled by the paddles and the lock gates. The paddles are raised and lowered by a hand-cranked windlass (everyone needs to take their turn) using your lock key (don't EVER forget and leave this behind at a lock or you're stuffed) allowing water to flow into or out of a lock raising or lowering the water level in the lock chamber. Obviously it's critical that the paddles be operated in the right order (especially in lock flights consisting of multiple locks) or you can end up draining a lock that you need to fill. To ensure that things are done right, the lock paddles are colour coded; red and white, and a pneumonic system is used to keep you straight.

Red before white, you're alright.
White before red, you're dead.

Or was it….

White before red, go ahead.
Red before white, you're stuck all night.

Ah, no worries, it all flows downhill in the end. 8-))

Once the water level is right in the lock the gates can be opened. This means putting your back into it. Good job there's some
large cleats to give you a foothold.

There are a number of other critical considerations in using the locks. Make sure that your mooring line is slack if you're lowering the water or you'll end up hanging on the lock chamber wall. There's also
a sill at the base of the lock gates; if you're too close you get hung up on that. Lastly, the inflow of water as the lock chamber fills can swamp your barge if you're not paying attention to position in the chamber.

Navigating the mile-long
Crick Tunnel was a hoot! Steering in the dark is quite an experience. The tunnel light on the front of the boat is next to useless; 15 watts maximum it seemed. Gives a whole new meaning to the expression "the light at the end of the tunnel." This tunnel is cold (you can see your breath easily) and VERY wet! One boatman remembered filling a kettle for tea from one of the leaks. Shirtless, that dripping water is bloody cold! The return trip was done wearing a shirt!

As this IS a holiday, it's not all gruelling work manning the tiller. A
typical lunch while underway - Cranberrry Wensleydale, Y-Fenni (with mustard seed), Leicester Gold, Stilton, pork pie, Thai chicken… Tough duty steering a barge, eh? And a beer. Always had a beer handy. We moored for the night near Elkington. Dinner was goulash, new potatoes, and peas.

Wednesday had us take the Welford Arm off the
Grand Union Canal up to Welford Marina and a couple of pints in the pub there. The pub "theme" appears to be "makin' bacon." They had a neat canal maintenance barge moored there. This was also the turn-around point for the cruise. We headed back to Elkington to tie up for the night. Jim's brother Andy, wife Ede, the kids Matt and Laura, and the dogs Rogan and Chester joined us for a canal-side barbie. It was a challenge to see who gets the treat. We enjoyed another of Dolly's Hungarian specialities for a starter; Hortobagy Pollacinta, a sort of goulash crepe. Awesome!

Matt and Laura joined us for the day Thursday which gave Jim a chance to do some
additional classes on driving a barge. Dolly even put her oar in. Can't be outdone by the kids after all. Jim provided a demonstration of barge driving prowess by doing a 360° turn in a winding hole. A rope swing tempted everyone but Dolly to have a go.

Dinner was one of Dolly's signature dishes; asparagus chicken. After dinner we stopped in at the Wharf Inn for a few pints. We ran into a couple of engine blokes (funny how engine show shirts will serve as an "introduction") that we would run into again at the Hollowell Steam Rally. I got snagged by a local bit of pub humour. There was a long sign above the bar that read:
F. Y. C. I. W. C. Y. T. P. F. T. T. P. P. Naturally, one must ask….
"For Your Curiosity It Will Cost You Ten P (pence) For The Ten P Pile" which also explained the huge stack of coins in the Plexiglas box at the end of the bar. Later in the evening we went outside for a bit of sand pit Bocce (Boules for the Brits?). As we staggered back to the barge it was easier to understand how folks walking home from a pub could end up in the canal.

It was up early and under way Friday. Sadly we watched as England lost 2-1 to Brazil and later in the day we watched the USA side go down 1-nil to Germany. So much for an England-USA World Cup final. Stopped in at the home-baked pie shop to pick up a few goodies for dinner. The narrow boat cruise covered a total of 58 miles in five days; a lovely leisurely way to see a different side of England.

Next up is the 1000 Engine Rally at Astle Park and a visit to the Anson Museum.


Part 1 Lister-Petter Rally
Part 3 1000 Engine Rally and Anson Museum
Part 4 Pubs, Shopping and Starting Tillie
Part 5 Belgium and Dover Castle
Part 6 Abbey Pumping Station Urban Rally
Part 7 Peter Forbes & Melton Mowbray
Part 8 Philip Thornton-Evison & Tony Harcombe's Museum
Part 9 Roland's Yard
Part 10 POETS Day and Hollowell Steam Show
Part 11 The London Eye and Imperial War Museum

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