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The travels of narrow boat Racundra

Oxford Canal: Part 1

Tuesday 16th September
(9L 1689.6H 1400.91M)
Dashwoods Lock, Lower Heyford

Our plan now is to get on to the Oxford Canal and head north in time to arrive at Cropredy on Friday. Along the way we will pass, at Lower Heyford, Oxfordshire Narrowboats which is a boatyard / hire base and see if they have anyone who can look at our propulsion problem.

Dukes Cut LockThe first leg of our journey leads us off the Thames on to a short connecting section called Dukes Cut. Off the river, past the King’s Lock weir and a sharp left turn into a narrow and overgrown canal. This meanders east before making a sharp turn left – which I actually missed! I went straight on, immediately realised my error and backed up. If the previous stretch had been a contrast to the river the next bit was all rather surreal. It got narrower and was largely blocked by two boats immediately adjacent to the most derelict lock we have ever seen. The small gap past the last boat was largely obstructed by the branches of a fallen tree and there was nowhere to land to investigate the lock. It looked like nobody had ventured along here for at least 50 years, and I had very little expectation of the lock actually working.

Oxford canal lift bridgeI did manage to jump off the front of the boat onto the lock side, with my trusty windlass, and found something that looked like it might empty the lock. The lock depth was only about a foot and it did empty but I have no idea where the water went. The gate opened amazingly and we managed to pass through. Out of the lock we made a sharp left onto the South Oxford Canal. We were off and running now and we made our way through some fairly dilapidated locks. We also came across a new style of lift bridge. This bridge is finely counterbalanced and is held down by a key operated catch. Once released the bridge rocks under its own weight into the upright position. A chain hangs off it so that it can be retrieved after the boat has passed. I think Glyn and I had similar visions of me hanging from the bridge as it swung up!

Shipton Weir LockAnother first for us today was Shipton Weir Lock. This is a lock that connects the canal to a section of the River Cherwell. This is normal enough but the lock is a lozenge shape – normal gates at each end but widening out in the middle – which means the boat drifts around while you are filling the lock. I’m sure there is a good reason for this new variation on a theme but I have yet to discover what it is.

Oxford CanalThe Canal is rather quaint, quite narrow and used by an endless stream of octogenarian boaters. It took me an hour or so to slow down after the high speeds of river travel but in reality there was no choice as we caught up with a solemn cortège of ancient boaters. This was just as well as I was nursing Racundra along to ensure that I didn’t make any excessive demands of our rather fragile transmission.

Thrupp WharfAt lunchtime we arrived at Thrupp. We took a walk along to the wharf which has been nicely dressed up. It looks very attractive with carefully cultivated planting. There are full services, including a book exchange that we availed ourselves of. Adjacent there is a tea room and we decided to lunch out. After lunch we brought the boat up, through another lift bridge (electrically operated) and made the sharp left turn to bring the boat into the wharf. While we were there another group of octogenarians came along in their hire boat and while trying to decide what to do about the lift bridge drifted aimlessly before ramming the wharf wall. Nobody actually fell overboard but it looked a bit precarious.

Dashwoods LockOnce again the weather improved through the day, and we both reduced our clothing layers as the temperature rose. We are both more relaxed now that we are back on the canal. We had planned to reach the boatyard before it closed but when it became clear that we were failing we called a halt about a mile short at a delightful spot just above Dashwoods Lock.

Wednesday 17th September
(3L 1693.1H 1408.44M)
Aynho Wharf

We travelled the last mile to the boatyard and were pleasantly surprised to be able to tie up outside. The staff at the boatyard were extremely helpful but their engineer only came to them twice a week on Monday and Friday. Regardless they offered to call him and see if he was in the area. In fact he did have another job nearby and he agreed to come and have a look, expecting to arrive about 12.30. So we bought a loaf of bread from the chandlers / village shop and parked the boat across from the yard.

Lower Heyford Lower Heyford Church Lower Heyford Church

Having time to kill we took a leisurely walk through the village of Lower Heyford which is very picturesque and tidy. We called in to the church where one of the parishioners was cleaning. A nice, well kept church, with some very interesting stained glass. We then completed a round trip back to the boat by walking down to the old mill and back along the canal.

When we arrived back the engine cover was up and Dave Rabson, the engineer, was already on the job. He had decided to come to us first. He had a new coupling with him and we spent a while discussing what to do. We thought the coupling he had was another one that was too large, and we decided to go back to the yard and see if we could order a correct one. When we got back he measured the one he had and we decided that in fact it was the 30mm one that we needed. We decided to fit it and see how it went. Back at the boat he got to work and as soon as we offered up the prop shaft to the coupling we knew we had the right one. The fit was neat and soon Dave had it all bolted up tight. Also, when connecting the flange to the gearbox, it was clear that the engine alignment was good too. When Dave had finished we started the engine and engaged the prop. Dave pronounced it “sound as a pound” and we were back in business. This was quite a relief as the problem had been nagging away at us for a week now. Total cost: £110 for the coupling and £50 for Dave.

The loaf of bread was excellent too. The whole thing had been a good experience and we would recommend both Oxfordshire Narrowboats and Dave Rabson (07743 326526). In fact we could do with Dave at the weekend when Pete goes off to do the Welsh 3000’s as apparently he knows Snowdonia well and has walked the Crib Goch ridge many times. Also the lad in the yard knew Torridon and our local mountains.

Aynho Wharf Great Western Arms Day off for Glyn

Asking how far Banbury was I was told 4 hours which was probably too much for what remained of the day, but I was offered Aynho Wharf instead and a good pub – the Great Western Arms. So we decided to treat ourselves, and set off. We got moored just past the wharf and set off for an early meal. The pub was interesting, well stocked with GWR memorabilia and run by a French couple. The meal was OK – well presented but not sure our duck really justified the price tag. Anyway, it was a break for Glyn from the daily cooking.

Thursday 18th September
(7L 1698.1H 1417.72M)
Little Bourton

The big day – Scotland’s Independence referendum. Hopefully, our proxy votes will be made according to our wishes back in Torridon, and the right decision will be made. We won’t know until tomorrow morning. The weather forecast for Snowdon Summit is looking good for Sunday and in the meantime we are going to continue wending our way north towards the marina at Cropredy.

We have some well spaced locks ahead of us and the map shows a large number of lift bridges. It turns out that the lift bridges are all kept in the open position, which is great, and before long we arrived at the Pig Place near King’s Sutton, where the sign said “Stop for Farm Shop”. This is a working small holding keeping rare breed pigs and selling their produce through a small farm shop. They have mooring outside for several boats where they offer winter moorings and occasional overnight mooring with electric hookup. They also have a campsite and a small pack of whippets. Visitors are told not to worry if they don’t have a dog, they can “borrow one of ours”. Very friendly operation. It turns out that Glyn would have been quite happy stopping for a few days while I was away, but now she has her heart set on a laundrette.

We stopped for lunch before Banbury and again after bridge 168 as we had been tipped off that an easily accessible Morrisons was to be found there. Unfortunately for us, at least two boats passed us while we were shopping and when we set off again we arrived at Banbury Lock at the back of a queue of four boats. We spent a “jolly” time waiting our turn with boats coming the other way as well. It was a good job that we had plenty of time – proving once again that this is a game that can’t be hurried. Eventually we did ascend through the lock. I hadn’t been looking forward to Banbury as I had got the impression that it wasn’t anything special but when we arrived at the top we discovered that, at least along the canal, it is very presentable. There is extensive visitor mooring with nicely paved walkways and exuberant floral displays. Well done Banbury!

Banbury Lock Banbury Lift Bridge Banbury Quay

Lock maintenanceWe cruised along after Banbury and soon we were looking for a mooring. We decided to stop above Little Bourton Lock where two CRT employees were doing some general maintenance. Don’t know if any of you boaters out there ever wondered who wrote all those “CILL” signs on the lock walls?

We tied up and spent a little time sorting ourselves out. As we sat eating our dinner a group of kayakers came racing past, to be followed a little later by another group, and then another and another. I was convinced they must be circling around and coming past again – there must have been at least 50. We couldn’t decide if it was some type of competition or just a training session at a very large club. Several more narrow boats came up through the lock. As each boat filled the lock the water level where we were moored dropped and the boat tipped over as it grounded only to recover again when they emptied the next lock upstream from us. Finally, at about 8pm a bright light went past in the dark – a late traveller indeed.

All that remains is to sweat out the next few hours while they count votes in Scotland.

Friday 19th September
(2L 1420.22M)
Cropredy Marina

We completed the short distance to the marina and presented ourselves at the office. Dave Fox the marina manager, welcomed us and showed us to a vacant mooring with access to water and power for £10/night. He also sold us enough tokens for two washing machine and drier cycles. Glyn was desperate to get the washing on and I was desperate to do some boat washing. We haven’t cleaned the outside of the boat for weeks as it is only really practical when we have an adjacent water supply. However, she does clean up and well and it was a very satisfying experience. The marina occupies a large area in two basins off the main canal. They are not overcrowded – indeed the amount of space around the moored boats is just extravagant – so it is easy to manoeuvre the boat. There are limited facilities – apart from the washing machine there is one shower and some toilets. They also sell diesel and gas and have pump-out and elsan facilities, so there is everything you need.

Saturday 20th September
Cropredy Marina / Betws-y-Coed

We walked into the village in search of our weekly newspaper and found a very well stocked little shop just by Cropredy Wharf bridge. We also bought some pain chocolat. Opposite the shop is the canoe club from which our energetic kayakers came. Thursday night is their training night. Saturday appears to be the time for the juniors to meet. The place was packed and a large number of enthusiastic and competent paddlers were coming and going. I don’t know why such a large and successful club is located here but good on them.

I sorted out my walking gear and got packed. At midday Dave Percy arrived to collect me and whisk me off to Betws-y-Coed to take part in our much delayed Welsh 3000s challenge. More about that elsewhere.

Glyn was looking forward to some time alone so that she could do some serious cleaning on board. A couple of nights ago we decided that it was time to test the water and advertise our boat for sale. I decided to put an advert on Apollo Duck. We paid £25 for a 3 month featured advert that would allow us to link to this blog and upload photos and data. I reproduced the information from the Racundra page located here and elaborated some of the detail. We also decided to take a photo of our bedroom to add to the page. As a result we are hoping to hear from one or more interested parties and so we are focussing on making her look as smart as possible.

Glyn also heard from Eric and Ann suggesting that they might come over to visit us. When they were told that I wouldn’t be here they decided to come anyway  and take Glyn out for dinner – which was very kind of them. She is feeling a little nervous about being on her own while I am away and so it was great for her to have some company. They dined at the Brasenose Arms and I gather had an entertaining evening. On return from the pub Glyn went to make coffee only to discover that the gas had run out. We knew it was running low and I had offered to swap it over – an offer that was not taken up. So Eric volunteered to clamber out on the foredeck in the dark and do the business – useful having an experienced boater aboard. Meanwhile I had an early night in preparation for a 2.30am start in the morning.

Sunday 21st September
Cropredy Marina / Betws-y-Coed

Glyn cracked on with her cleaning, spent quite a while on FaceTime using up my wi-fi allowance, and Eric and Ann called back for Ann’s glasses that she had left behind. Pete spent 17 hours walking across Snowdonia but even so failed to complete the challenge.

Glyn also had a call from someone interested in buying Racundra! It sounds like she is just the boat he wants (clearly a perceptive fellow) and he wants to come and see for himself.

Monday 22nd September
(8L 1702.6H 1423.73M)
Boundary Lift Bridge (141)

The day started cold across England and Wales. Glyn needed the heating in order to get out of bed. This is not the first cold morning since the season changed from summer to autumn and not only are the trees deciding it is time to hunker down for the winter and shed their leaves, but our migratory birds are packing their bags in readiness for their long flights south. Apparently the swifts set off back in August, but I haven’t seen many swallows for a while now. The martins are still around but I have noticed the lapwings flocking recently. Still, we are enjoying fabulous weather from dawn to dusk both in Snowdonia and on the canals of Middle England.

Pete and Dave arrived back at midday. In my case complete with blisters and patches of raw skin but no more permanent damage (hopefully). We replaced the empty cylinder and filled the water again. Glyn did another machine load of washing and eventually we cast off to continue our journey north up the Oxford Canal.

Claydon FlightOxfordshire countrysideWe didn’t travel very far as we were straight into a series of locks including the Claydon flight of 5. Shortly after the top lock we decided to stop for the night and I spotted a likely place behind two other boats. As I came in to the bank the owner of the boat ahead came back to warn me that I might not want to moor there as he was going to be “flushing out” his engine which would entail a lot of high revving, in gear, and I might even be washed off my mooring. I didn’t stop to argue. Whatever it was about we could do without it so we pressed on. We then had a very frustrating half hour as we tried a series of places, only to find that we couldn’t get the mooring pins in to the ground. The towpath has been “restored” with the bank made up using bags of concrete. It is also very narrow, so one can’t get very far from the bank with the pins without obstructing the path. Eventually we had success just past the Boundary Lift bridge. For some time now all the lift bridges have been fixed in the open position which is most convenient.

As we were getting dinner we received another enquiry about the boat. This time a couple from Oxford rang, hoping to find that she was still for sale. Apparently Racundra ticks all the boxes for them and is perfect as we are currently fairly local to them. Unfortunately, I had to disappoint them and say that as we were already talking to another prospect then he would have to have first refusal. However, we decided that there was no reason not to view the boat if they wanted. They were worried lest they should fall in love with her and then not be able to buy her. It is difficult but we will give our first contact priority at least for the moment. A nice problem for us anyway. We are going to try to meet up with both parties over the next few days but we will do so while continuing with our journey.

Tuesday 23rd September
(12L 1438.24M 90F)
Below Calcutt Locks

Little beknown to me we stumbled into the summit pound last night, so after stopping at Fenny Compton wharf to refill the diesel tank (84p / litre) we made good time along the lock free pound to the first of the descending locks at Marston Doles, swiftly followed by Green’s lock and then the Napton flight of 6 dropping us rapidly to the Folly Inn at Napton on the Hill. We were following another boat so all the locks were set against us but in the nice weather it was a pleasant progress. The countryside isn’t excessively hilly but we have obviously passed a watershed and are now descending into the Avon valley.

Narrow canal

Long stretches after Fenny Compton were very narrow and I seemed to meet a procession of boats coming the other way. At least once I found myself extricating us from overhanging hawthorn bushes. I believe this part is the Fenny Compton “tunnel”. There is no tunnel but a cutting through the summit is an alternative solution. The canal builders on this occasion appear to have kept to tunnel dimensions.

Descending to Napton

At the Napton flight we met up with a CRT volunteer who eased our passage. He and his boss were rewarded with chocolate crispie. At the bottom lock are services which we needed, so while I mucked out Glyn popped across to the little shop for milk and bread. Apparently, there is a more comprehensive shop (under the same management) in Napton itself which is either 400 yards or half a mile away according to who you ask.

Napton JunctionNapton JunctionThere is then another mile or so to the Napton Junction – hooray! I like junctions. This one had a nice signpost that enabled us to get our bearings momentarily before we swept left on to the Grand Union (Main Line). Avid readers of this blog will know when last we were on the GU I commented that it didn’t seem very grand. That changes here. From a distance the first lock looked like something more appropriate to one of the big river navigations and that impression didn’t change much close up. The lock gear is like nothing we have seen before, but it is clearly designed for some serious use. The lock size is fairly standard broad beam gauge but seems bigger. It also looks like the locks were originally equipped with a second narrow beam lock to increase throughput and save water.

Grand Union lock sluiceWe dropped down through the three Calcutt locks to the huge Calcutt Basin marina and shortly afterwards pulled up for the night. Two immediate differences to the Oxford canal: this canal is deeper and wider and suddenly our engine feels smoother and our boat speed has dramatically increased; mooring opportunities are plentiful.


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