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Many talk of making the open water crossing from Bristol to Sharpness over the Bristol Channel and few narrowboats actually do it. Oo-La-La has: this month we discuss how it is done, the risks, and show some photos of just how wide and wild this voyage is. It is not for the fainthearted.
We start with a lighter note. The Queen visited Bath the beginning of this month and it was great to see her in person as well as the entourage that surrounds her. Very surprising also that she walked around to greet the crowd for some considerable time. The excitement in the air was very gay so we caught a bit of the pre-Jubilee craze that was starting to fill the country. She looks fabulous in person.
Bath itself is a lovely city with much entertainment and conveniences very close to the moorings. We stayed for a couple of weeks to shop, receive mail and play petanque with our gang at the Bird in Hand pub in nearby Saltford. Great people all and we say a fond hello to them. The moorings on the weir are spectacular in location, very central and beautiful.
The music scene in Bath is varied and we enjoyed traditional jazz at Ye Olde Farmhouse with the group ‘Metropolis’, alternative music with ‘Silverman’ at the Porter Cellar Bar and good old acoustic blues with ‘The Barrelhouse Blues’ in Bradford on Avon. It is fun to make the short trip between Bath and Bradford on Avon (the mini-Bath). The canal between these two towns is full of variety: aqueducts, swing bridges, locks and great scenery. For variety, a trip down the Kennet & Avon to Saltford is well worth it, the town is beautiful along the canal, an historic stone village with charming gardens and architecture. This makes Bath doubly interesting as the perfect base to use between these two towns.
We ended our relaxing stop in Bath with a terrific time spent with Tim and Sharon Stainken from San Francisco, California. Then the time had come to say goodbye and head on for Bristol and the challenge to come.
The weather has been good most of the month until now. Our trip to Bristol is under dark skies and some sprinkling of rain. As we leave the last lock on the Kennet & Avon canal (Hanham Lock) we are in areas uncharted by the Nicholson guidebook. There is no mooring on the banks, they are simply too rough and so the rest of the journey must be completed in order to moor in Bristol. The entire trip from Bath to Bristol is approximately six hours.
Bristol is a big city compared to Bath. It is a hodgepodge of modern buildings amongst very old ones due to heavy bombing during WWII. The harbor is huge and 1,000 years old but does not have many touristy trappings. Hitherto we have cruised with only narrowboats thus it is a bracing change to find ourselves with cruise ships, ocean tugboats, world class racing sailboats and lots of fiberglass motor cruisers. A very low swing bridge barely grazes our boat as we glide under into the harbor and the very center of this lively town. Mooring is easily available as well as water and other services. Much of the music scene is right on the harbor. One of our favorite places, though, is not on the water but a short walk away. The Old Duke Pub on King St. features jazz five nights a week, but it is so small that most people end up in the ‘pedestrian only’ square just outside. The Llandoger Trow pub is right across from it. Dating back to 1664, the name comes from a Captain Hawkins who retired to run the pub after sailing a trow (a flat bottomed sailing barge) between South Wales and Bristol. The Llandoger part comes from Llandogo, a Welsh village on the river Wye. There are many legends relating to the Llandoger Trow. One is that the writer Daniel Dafoe met Alexander Selkirk here, the marooned sailor on whom he based the book Robinson Crusoe. Another; “The Spy-glass Inn,” featured in Treasure Island was also inspired by the Llandogo Trow. Regardless, many would be sailors were scripted into service after a pint or two at the Trow. Plenty of atmosphere lends to the imagination.
Now we get to the climax of our month: the voyage from Bristol to Sharpness. After a week of rain delaying our departure, a fair forecast finally arrives and we depart Bristol for the town of Portishead. This is done without the aid of a pilot although we have purchased an admiralty chart to help us navigate our way. A pilot is available for those who would like one. Remember, the Nicholson guides end before Bristol, so this is more ocean navigation than canal. It is not possible to go directly from Bristol to Sharpness. The trip must be made in two legs: from Bristol down the tidal River Avon to the town of Portishead on the shores of the Bristol Channel where we wait for the next rising tide and make the trip from Portishead to Sharpness. Time and tide wait for no one and we are bound by the laws of nature as to when we leave Bristol and arrive in Portishead. High tide is when to leave and we depart Bristol at 7AM in order to arrive at the sea lock at 8AM.
The crossing to Portishead is under cloudy sky but the seas are fairly calm. We are in open water and no longer within easy reach of land. The winds start to pick up and the seas get rougher. Now there are white caps on the water and still the lock in Portishead is barely visible to us. Oo-La-La performs well, there is no heavy pitching or rolling but the seas are looking too lively for comfort. As we are within sight of the lock we feel the wind start to push us sideways so we literally ‘crab’ into the lock, inching our way in with a sigh of relief as we see that there are green lights on the lock welcoming us into safety and harbor. The lock doors close, all is calm and the sun comes out. This is just the first half of the trip only six miles, the second, more perilous half is from Portishead to Sharpness a distance of 20 miles and for this we have secured the help of a competent and experienced pilot, when the weather allows of course.
Once out of the lock we are released into the Portishead Quay Marina, a brand new affair with all amenities and about a 15-minute walk from the town. There are sailboats and motor cruisers here, no narrowboats. We gratefully tie up on the dock and visit the office. Overnight mooring is a whopping 25 pounds a night (a lot for narrow boaters used to the free use of canals) but includes an electric point and water.
The weather worsens for two days so we hunker down and hope for the wind to die down. On the third day we get a call from our pilot. We leave in the morning.
Morning dawns gray and fairly calm. We meet Ken Higgs, our pilot, at 8:30AM in the lock. We lock through with a rugged ocean going gaff rigged sailboat and make an odd but interesting couple.
The trip takes about five hours from Portishead lock to the Sharpness lock. We make good time as we pass under two impressive suspension bridges, the Severn Bridge and the Second Severn Bridge. Ken has been a pilot on the Severn River for many years, doing five years just as an apprentice. Normally he pilots 7-10,000 pound bulk carriers and tells us that maybe one narrowboat a month does this crossing during summer. It is believable; all we see during this crossing is a huge cement carrier. We feel like flotsam in this very brown and turbulent area of the Bristol Channel.
Although the depth of the water is about 17 feet, it seems shallow since the currents kick up much of the
bottom and creates a muddy color, which persists all year. With the second highest
tidal range in the world, the tide changes 40 feet within six to eight hours twice
a day. On the spring tides it is so fierce that a bore (mini tidal wave) up to
six feet high is sent all the way up to the Severn River. We learn from Ken that
some unfortunate people have drowned being caught by the sudden tide flooding the
hitherto dry ground.
Our arrival at Sharpness is actually too early for the channel water to be deep enough for the ships inside the lock to exit. Outbound traffic has priority over inbound so we hang about for a couple of hours. Thanks to Ken, even though the weather starts to pick up alarmingly, we smoothly enter the lock in the wake of the giant freighters that leave. Surprisingly there is another narrowboat also exiting and we wish him good luck.
The lock doors close and we are in the biggest lock we have ever seen, the size of a small harbor. Once again in safe territory and about to enter the Gloucester-Sharpness Canal. We say thanks and goodbye to Ken and cruise onto Gloucester.
On our arrival in Gloucester we find that the town is teaming with flag bedecked boats and people celebrating the beginning of the five-day bank holiday for the Queens Golden Jubilee. We are in a mood to celebrate and happily moor up in the center of town.
OO-LA-LA was featured in the third show in latest BBC spy series “Spooks.”
Last Feb. the BBC was filming next to us in Little Venice. We were very surprised to see we made the “cut”.
.....on to June