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The distance of 305 miles is easily covered in highway miles in one day. Experience is compressed, one meets no one new and food is fast as the speed limit allows. Scenery is a blur and the day forgotten. To cover the same mileage by boat in a month is exactly the opposite, like the unfolding of a flower. The days pass slowly yet the weeks fly by and we are shocked to see how much is packed into those miles. A shopkeeper in Stratford-On-Avon once disparagingly remarked how slow narrowboats move at only 4 miles per hour. But what can you see at 65 miles per hour? What is the point of travel? Obviously for us the journey is the destination. So this month we try to compress over 300 miles, lots of locks, many smiles, new faces and new places. It is too much but we will try.
Take a look at the new map complete with dates and mileage.
June’s journey starts in Gloucester on the River Severn, up the River Avon, through Birmingham, onto the Shropshire Canal, down the Llangollen into Wales and ends back in England in the salt producing town of Middlewich.
Just after Gloucester, there is a fork at Tewkesbury where the River Severn goes west and the River Avon goes east. Tewkesbury is a fine, large 18th century town with lots of old timbered buildings. To access the town by boat is to enter the River Avon via a very pretty lock with a lockkeeper who collects a 42-pound fee for two weeks river license. Local people have formed the Lower and Upper Avon Navigation Trust (LANT and UANT) and they manage the Avon River rather than give up control to either British Waterways or the Environmental Agency. It is a volunteer group with folks at many of the locks who work the lock for the boater. A donation box is there for those who wish to support the cause.
The Berkeley Pub in Tewkesbury was in full swing that early June evening with the best acoustic duet we have heard to date “The Hypokondriacs”. These two musicians need nothing more than their guitars and big voices to entertain dozens with a huge repertoire of modern folk songs. Sun burnt happy faces herald the beginning of summer, full promise of fun.
We left Tewkesbury early the next day in order to be in Stratford on Avon for the Queen’s Jubilee celebrations by nightfall. Heavy rain was the order of the day and we considered pulling aside but each time we did the sun would come out. So we motored through. It is lucky for us that there were so many cheerful volunteers to help work the locks that are difficult due to the strong current of the river. Brilliant sunny weather greets us as we enter Stratford, the town of Shakespeare’s birth. Full of revelers, a carnival was set up in the park for the kids. High Street was closed off and a rock’n’pop concert set up for the adults. The first band was glitzy top 40, but the second band was better with good renditions of American music by Roy Orbison, Elvis Presley and Garth Brooks. The evening ended with a fabulous fireworks display over the crowd of thousands gathered on the river. We were lucky enough to be able to watch directly from the boat. Happy 50th Jubilee.
The next day we awake to the claxon of geese, swans and ducks around us. Stratford is bonkers with hundreds of birds and tourists everywhere. OO-LA-LA is moved from the river onto the lock that opens to a large basin in the center of town where we moor for a few days. It is the most gongoozling lock ever and we have a huge audience, as the boats are one of the main town attractions. One narrowboat sell ice cream and another paintings. Stratford is a super tourist town with all of the trappings yet still retains some charm. We are now off of the Avon River and onto the Stratford-on-Avon Canal.
We continue north toward Birmingham. There are 24 locks outside Stratford through remote and open country. It is hard work, but the beauty of the views and quiet after the crowds is a welcome change. We turn at King’s Norton off of the Stratford on Avon Canal onto the Worcestershire & Birmingham Canal.
Entering Birmingham via the Worcestershire & Birmingham Canal is a lovely way to go. It is lined with the gardens of private homes and there is no hint of the industry that surrounds the city. As we go through we are reminded of some of the cautions we have been told, the usual warnings about crime, etc. Having spent the winter in London, we are aware of big cities and their baggage. But we are surprised at the bucolic and lovely approach to this big bad city. A charity narrowboat race is under way and volunteers borrow our windlass to open swing bridges in advance. We cheer them on and as one boat passes us they toss a bag full of goodies to us. Horse brasses, stuffed toys and candy are inside along with a leaflet on St. John’s Ambulance. We were ‘chuffed’ (an English word for pleased or something like that). OO-LA-LA is moored in the Gas Street Basin that evening.
Birmingham is stupendous from the viewpoint of the canal enthusiast. The ‘Spaghetti Junction’ of canal world, there are bridges and canal signposts everywhere. It is newly developed and very clean and modern. The National Indoor Arena, the country’s premier exhibition center hosts one of the biggest waterway shows of the year. Just beyond it are the city’s major art gallery and museum in their more traditional Greco-Roman style buildings. Restaurants, pubs and shopping are everywhere and we enjoy jazz at the Piano and Pitcher. We are in the center of the city but the area is mostly pedestrian and park like. We have completed a circle – our first stop was Birmingham after we landed in England. It was not a great impression; we had a hotel in the center of town and saw Birmingham as a motorist, not a pretty sight to us. Now we realize our opinion is completely reversed and we even inquire at the local marina for winter mooring. Quite a 360-degree turn.
While in town we get to witness some of the behavior that makes ‘footie’ famous. The World Cup is on and England has just beaten Argentina. Fans jump all over the street and onto double decker buses. Their drivers sit in resignation and the passengers all get off. Even though they are double decker, the fans dance on top and leap from one to the other. Jubilation is all over the streets; the St. George flag is the fashion statement of the moment. There is no violence, thankfully, and in about 20 minutes the police arrive to rescue the bus drivers and stranded motorists.
Our stay in Birmingham lasts a week as we collect mail, refuel and do the usual chores. We meet Margaret and Allan, a lovely couple on board n/b Fifi. We leave Birmingham together on the main line out toward the Shropshire canal. Fifi and OO-LA-LA traveled in company down this very dirty and polluted canal, much more what we expected earlier. Often we get stuff caught on the propeller, things like old plastic containers or blankets. Fifi tells us, however, that the Old Line is much worse with appliances and even a sofa blocking up the canal and making it a misery. It is sad, but a fact, and at least we are prepared for the sight. It is about 5 miles of varying degrees of yuck but changes abruptly as Fifi shows us a little secret and leads us down an arm off of the Main Line at Factory Junction to moor at the Black Country museum. It is heaven, the sun is shining, everything is clean and we breathe a collective sigh of relief.
The next day we have 21 narrow locks to work through Wolverhampton. Fifi is ahead of us and Margaret is working the locks for their boat and we are following, Marlane driving, Rob working locks. To work 21 locks without a break is staggering but she also opened the back paddle for us on each one so we had a head start. Margaret looked fresh as a daisy at the end, belying the fact she had performed heroically. Sadly we had to say goodbye at the junction of the Shropshire and Worcestershire canals. They are truly wonderful people to meet.
Speaking of meeting people, we finally got to personally greet, briefly, one of our readers. N/b Maximus recognized us at Adderly Locks as we passed each other. ‘Haven’t I been reading you on the web?’ Yes! Great to meet you Maximus. We have been getting lots of mail from readers and enjoy hearing opinions and comments. Reader comments had us add the map of our travels and we are trying to keep track of the miles as well.
The Shropshire Union is a country canal that passes through market towns and farms. There are few places to restock on food and fuel so it is best to prepare. We overnight in the town of Audlem; it has the look and feel of a Swiss alpine village. Two attractive pubs are on the canal, which has tall pine trees on the banks. The air is cool. The Shroppie Fly pub has a bar shaped like a narrowboat complete with cratch front. Live oompahpah music with an accordion sound plays and confirms our Swiss Alpine feeling. The evenings are very long and nightfall comes around 11 PM with a lingering light that can last until midnight. The sun is up by 3:30 AM. We are grateful for the curtains in our bedroom that block this super early morning sunlight.
Continuing north we anticipate mooring near the town of Nantwich but find, to our dismay that the numerous moorings are all taken up. This is a popular spot. Stakes are taken out; we moor on the edge of town and walk a mile or so. Nantwich is lively; a prosperous Roman town that was devastated by fire in the 15th century but many half-timbered houses remain.
The World Cup match between Turkey and Senegal is on and we watch, fascinated, from The Frog and Ferret, a friendly pub in town. A local man explains some of the more esoteric rules of ‘footie’ to us. England has already lost their chance to Brazil and he proclaims he will be wearing a Brazil shirt since they are really the best team. The World Cup is not just screaming wild fans, it brings people and nations together as well, similar to the Olympics.
Boats that we have seen in our travels are popping up again. It is fun to see that we are living in a truly mobile community. N/b Grace, Beltane, Albion and Lovinia all remember us as we remember them from London, Oxford and Aylesbury respectively.
Three deep locks mark the beginning of the popular Llangollen Canal. A teacher who lives in Wales finally gave us the correct pronunciation as ‘Langoflen’ phonetically speaking. Welsh is a difficult language for us. It is also the oldest spoken European language.
The Llangollen starts from the Shropshire just outside Nantwich, England to the town of Llangollen in Wales. It is a popular canal and hire boats are everywhere. We experience our first queue for a lock – seven boats.
Two beautiful lakes are on each side of the Llangollen Canal, Cole Mere and Blake Mere. There are picnic tables and rings to moor up and enjoy the lakeside view. We are doing exactly that when a traditionally dressed man and his beautiful draft horse approach us. Horses used to be common on the towpath of course, but we weren’t quite prepared for the sight of The Green Wellie Man. Also known as David, he is on a tour of the canals and collecting money for farm workers out of work due to foot and mouth disease. An engaging fellow, he obliges us with a photo. Pictures say a thousand words.
This month’s highlight is the breathtaking Chirk and Pontcysyllte Aqueducts. A magnificent soaring Roman structure hundreds of feet about the River Dee we cross it just before entering the Welsh town of Llangollen. Heart stopping for anyone afraid of heights and utterly beautiful we could barely take in the wealth of scenery, the enormous stretch of land between the far steep hills of Wales and us.
There is a sharp 90-degree turn right after the aqueduct so we have little time to be stunned. Plenty of boats, hire boats, head boats, and private boats are milling about and the canal is narrow. We maneuver OO-LA-LA successfully and moor in Llangollen, our first stop in Wales. The town is on the River Dee (Afon Dyfrdwy in Welsh) and very attractive. It is full of tourists, but we like tourist towns especially arriving in our own hotel room. We celebrate our wedding anniversary at The Corn Mill, a new restaurant with a great view of the river and a wonderful smell of freshly cut wood.
The Llangollen Canal becomes very shallow approaching town. The guidebook recommends that boast with a draft of more than 21 inches should not approach. This should be taken very seriously. We draw 22 inches when our water tanks are full and frequently slid along the bottom of the canal.
The current in the Llangollen is also quite strong going in, so we went out of the canal a bit faster. Many boaters think they have an engine problem at first until they realize there is a strong current. Popping out of the canal from where we entered we continued onto to the short Middlewich Canal and are now in the town of Middlewich, waiting due to a stoppage. A canal wall collapsed just outside the famous Anderton Lift and flooded local fields. Rumor is we will be okay to go in a couple of days but we are not sure how long the stoppage will be.
Next Month: We’ll talk about the Anderton Boat Lift and travels to Manchester and Liverpool.
On to July.....