Narrowboating

I’ve had a tardy summer for blogging, falling way behind on many of the things I’d planned to write about. Perhaps the problem is that I’m still on Narrowboat Time, the timezone of a strange parallel universe in which everything happens more-slowly, in a gin-soaked, gently-rocking, slowly-crawling haze.

Matt, JTA and Ruth tie up the narrowboat after our first day's travel.
The apparent haze in the centre of this photograph is not the result of gin, however, but of a scuff on the lens of the camera I was using; a fault which was not apparent to me until after I looked at the pictures, and so – now I’ve pointed it out – you won’t be able to un-see it in any of the other snaps, either.

That’s believable, because this summer Ruth, JTA and I – joined for some of the journey by Matt – rented a narrowboat and spent a week drifting unhurriedly down the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal… and then another week making a leisurely cruise back up it again.

Matt takes a siesta atop the boat.
Symptoms of “boat-lag”, which is a result of spending any significant period on Narrowboat Time, include siestas, lounging, and a generally relaxed and laid-back attitude.

We picked up Nerys, out of Cambrian Cruisers, who also gave us an introduction to the operation of the boat (driving it, filling it with water, pumping out sewage, generating electricity for appliances, etc.) and safety instructions (virtually all of the canal is less than four feet deep, so if you fall in, the best thing to do is to simply walk to the shore), and set out towards Brecon. In order to explore the entire canal in the time available, we needed to cover an average of only five miles per day. When you’re going at about two and a half miles per hour and having to stop to operate locks (there are only six locks on the navigable stretch of the canal, but they’re all clustered towards the upper end), though, five miles is plenty.

Matt looks out over the Usk Valley, near our first mooring.
Time spent mooring up, casting off, refilling the water tank, and squeezing past other boats on the narrow canal willalso slow you down. But it’s still worth getting started moving on a morning, to ensure that you don’t need to compete for one of the more-beautiful spots to tie up at the end of your day’s travel.

The upper end of the canal is by far the busiest, with not only narrowboats cruising up and down but a significant number of day boats (mostly on loan from Brecon) and at least one tour boat: a 50-seater that you don’t want to have to wiggle past at sharp corner North of the Bryich Aqueduct. From a navigation perspective, though, it’s also the best-maintained: wide enough that two boats can pass one another without much thought, and deep enough across its entire width that you needn’t be concerned about running aground, it makes for a great starting point for people who want some narrowboating practice before they hit the more challenging bits to the South.

Dan and Ruth with a geocache.
The towpath is also a haven for geocachers. Ruth and I are here seen holding GC3698Y, “Jass @ Jammy”, which was hidden only a short walk from where we moored at the end of our first and third days.

Ruth was excited to find in me a driver who was confident holding the boat steady in a lock. Perhaps an expression of equal parts talent and arrogance, I was more than happy to take over the driving, leaving others to jump out and juggle the lock gates and lift bridges. Owing to Ruth’s delicate condition, we’d forbidden her from operating the entirely-manual locks, but she made sure to get a go at running one of the fancy hydraulic ones.

Ruth operates a hydraulic lock.
The hydraulic locks aren’t any faster than the unassisted ones, but they don’t take quite so much “pushing”.

After each day’s cruising, we’d find a nice place to moor up, open a bottle of wine or mix up some gin-and-tonics, and lounge in the warm, late summer air.

Matt, Dan and JTA enjoy wine on their moored-up boat.
Matt, Dan and JTA enjoy wine on their moored-up boat. Ruth, who of course can’t drink, is behind the camera.

As we wound our way further South, to the “other” end of the waterway, we discovered that the already-narrow canal was ill-dredged, and drifting anywhere close to the sides – especially on corners – was a recipe for running around. Crewmates who weren’t driving would take turns on “pole duty”, being on standby to push us off if we got too close to one or the other bank.

Moored up with a plank.
Another effect of the shallow sides was that we’d sometimes have to “walk the plank” to get ashore. On the upside, we could raise the plank at night and feel like we were isolated in our own little fortress, with its own little drawbridge.

Each night moored up in a separate place gives a deceptive feeling of travel. Deceptive, because I’ve had hiking trips where I’ve traveled further each day than we did on our boat! But the nature of the canal, winding its way from the urban centre of Brecon out through the old mining villages of South Wales.

A gentleman "pumps out" our boat.
Modern narrowboats have a chemical toilet that needs to be “pumped out”. Slightly icky, but probably less nasty than the distant historical alternative, presumably, of putting your bum over the edge.

The canal, already quite narrow and shallow, only became harder to navigate as we got further South. Our weed hatch (that’s the door to the propeller box, that is, not a slang term for the secret compartment where you keep your drugs) saw plenty of use, and we found ourselves disentangling all manner of curious flora in order to keep our engine pushing us forwards (and not catching fire).

JTA fishes crap our of the weed hatch.
Reaching into a dirty, cold, damp hole and pulling out gunky, slimy strands of crap isn’t the most-fun job. And you really want to make sure you’ve taken the key out of the ignition, too, assuming that you’re fond of your fingers.

Eventually, we had to give up navigating the waterway, tie up, and finish the journey on foot. We could have gotten the boat all the way to the end, but it’d have been a stop-start day of pushing ourselves off the shallow banks and cleaning out the weed hatch. Walking the last few miles – with a stop either way at a wonderful little pub called The Open Hearth – let us get all the way to both ends of the navigable stretch of the canal, with a lot less hassle and grime.

Ruth and JTA at Five Locks
Ruth and JTA at the head of Five Locks, the lowest remaining navigable point of the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal.

It’s a little sad coming to the end of a waterway, cut short – in this case – by a road. There’s no easy way – short of the removal of an important road, or the challenging and expensive installation of a drop lock, that this waterway will ever be connected at this point again. The surrounding landscape doesn’t even make it look likely that it’ll be connected again by a different route, either: this canal is broken here.

Ruth and JTA look into the Cwmbran Tunnel.
The Cwmbran Tunnel is narrow, 87 yards long, and both ends are badly in need of dredging. Knowing our luck, we’d have gotten grounded in there if we’d have brought the boat that far.

I found myself remarking on quite how well-laid-out the inside of the narrowboat was. Naturally, on a vehicle/home that’s so long and thin, a great number of clever decisions had clearly been made. The main living space could be converted between a living room, dining room, and bedroom by re-arranging planks and poles; the kitchen made use of carefully-engineered cupboards to hold the crockery in place in case of a… bump; and little space-saving features added up all along the boat, such as the central bedroom’s wardrobe door being adaptable to function as a privacy door between the two main bedrooms.

Ruth and JTA set up Arkham Horror in the narrowboat.
In dining room configuration, we were even able (with judicious use of nearby shelves and the seats alongside us) to play a game of Arkham Horror. And we won, which was perhaps even more-remarkable.

On the way back up the canal, we watched the new boaters setting out in their narrowboats for the first time. We felt like pros, by now, gliding around the corners with ease and passing other vessels with narry a hint of a bump. We were a well-oiled machine, handling every lock with ease. Well: some ease. Unfortunately, we’d managed to lose not one but both of our windlasses on the way down the canal and had to buy a replacement pair on the way back up, which somewhat dented our “what pros we are” feeling.

Our final pass through Brynich Lock
Our final pass through Brynich Lock was slick and seamless.

Coming to the end of our narrowboating journey, we took a quick trip to Fourteen Locks, a beautiful and series of locks with a sophisticated basin network, disconnected from the remains of the South Wales canal network. They’ve got a particular lock (lock 11), there, whose unusual shape hints at a function that’s no-longer understood, which I think it quite fabulously wonderful – that we could as a nation built a machine just 200 years ago, used it for a hundred years, and now have no idea how it worked.

Our trolley full of shelves, in Ikea.
Our “big” trip to Ikea a few weeks later was significantly bigger, even, than this one, though.

Our next stop was Ikea, where we’d only meant to buy a couple of shelves for our new home, but you know how it is when you go to Ikea.

We wrapped up our holiday with a visit to Sian and Andy (and their little one), and Andy showed off his talent of singing songs that send babies to sleep. I swear, if he makes an album of children’s songs and they’re as effective as he is in person, we’ll buy a copy.

Andy, Sian, and baby
MiniRegz and parents.

Altogether, a wonderfully laid-back holiday that clearly knocked my sense of urgency so far off that I didn’t blog about it for several months.

Edit, 22 June 2018: after somebody from the Canal & River Trust noticed that my link to their page on the Brynich Aqueduct was broken after they’d rearranged their site, I removed it. They suggested an alternative page, but it didn’t really have the same content (about the aqueduct itself) so I’ve just removed the link. Boo, Canal & River Trust! Cool URIs Don’t Change!

Scotland Etc.

A quick summary of a holiday (and a series of associated trips on the side) that Ruth and I took a fortnight ago (yeah; I’ve been busy). Ruth has already written a little about the trip. I’d hoped to blog “on the move”, but a combination of low signal and low energy after a day of paddling made this pretty much impossible, so here’s the “grand catch-up”:

Wednesday 27th May

Ruth and I travelled to Shropshire to visit Ruth’s grandma in hospital, but it turned out that she’d been discharged about an hour before we arrived, so we briefly visited her at home.

Then we drove on, up to Preston.

In the evening, we played Chocolate Teapot with my family. I haven’t written about Chocolate Teapot on here yet, but the short summary is that it’s a “light” board game I’ve put together in the style of Apples to Apples meets Chrononauts… meets Dragons’ Den. So far, folks seem to like it, although I’m still ironing out a few kinks in the rules.

Thursday 28th May

This morning, we were supposed to do something special I’d had planned to commemorate the occasion of Ruth finishing her final exam, but we weren’t able to on account of the weather. I’d kept secret from Ruth what it is we were eventually to do, and the tension of not knowing (she’s not good at surprises) was very obviously boggling her poor little mind by now.

Instead, we went to Blackpool, rode a few rides (and felt ill thanks to eating a huge chocolate éclair each and then riding on the waltzer on the Central Pier), and played adventure golf, which Ruth won by a significant margin. And then ate fish & chips, because that’s what one does in Blackpool.

Got tied up with some stuff in East Lancashire early in the evening and missed our chance to get to see Pagan Wanderer Lu on his weekend mini-tour. Damn.

Ate far too much Chinese food at an all-you-can-eat buffet and gave myself nasty indigestion.

Friday 29th May

Did things in Preston, like buying lots of really really cheap clothes to wear for the remainder of the trip while paddling around in Scotland.

Saturday 30th May

Travelled up to Gretna Green with my dad and Ruth. Left the car at the services there and transferred to a coach full of Go North East employees. Travelled up to Fort William, in the centre of the Nevis mountain range and close to the Great Glen Way and the Caledonian Canal.

Despite it by now being late in the afternoon, my dad suggested we walk up Ben Nevis, so Ruth and I – joined by two others: John (fellow canoeist) and Dave (the bus driver, although – that said – about half of the folks on the trip were bus drivers) – followed my dad up the mountain. Dave, who’d apparently never climbed a mountain before, made it about 200 feet up before he had to give up. Ruth and I got to about 3200ft before we realised that we hadn’t actually eaten since breakfast and had to turn around and get some food, and only my dad and John made it the extra thousand feet or so to the summit, keeping a spectacular pace going as they did.

There’s photos from Ben Nevis here.

Sunday 31st May

This was our first day in canoes. Ruth and I took one, John and my dad took a second, and the third was taken by a pair of the bus drivers, Yvonne and Claire. We were to paddle our way up to Inverness, towards the North Sea, over four days. The remainder of the group were to walk the Great Glen Way – about 13 miles longer, and – of course – hillier, but at least they’d be powered by their legs and not their arms!

The first day was the hardest. It was the longest, which made an impact, but it was also the hottest. I’d not planned for this kind of heat (I’d thought – hey, Scotland, that’ll be a few degrees colder than Aberystwyth, but it turned out that Northern Scotland was in the middle of some kind of unseasonal heatwave): my case held lots of long sleeves and not enough pairs of shorts! Out on the lochs and canals, there’s no shade, and on our first day’s paddling, there wasn’t any breeze either. Combine that with 17 miles of rowing, and you’ve got a recipe for exhaustion.

Ruth overdid it somewhat, and triggered a relapse of her RSI, and she wasn’t able to carry on rowing for the rest of the trip: instead, she joined the walkers group, and a walker called Martin took her place in my canoe.

Among the many canoeing photos I took, there’s a very cute one of Ruth with one of the walkers helping her to drink a glass of lemonade because her arms were too broken to lift the glass for herself.

Monday 1st June

The second day’s canoeing was a lot shorter, and a lot easier. Martin and I – after a little bit of weaving around the canal and failing to paddle in a straight line – found a great synchronisation and made a great rowing team. We easily led the other two canoes for most of the remainder of the journey.

On this, the second day, we even beat the walkers along the first half of the route, meeting them part way for lunch on a pebble beach alongside Loch Oich.

One of the hardest bits of canoeing the Caledonian Canal is that British Waterways no longer allow canoes to use the lock gates (there’s a concern that if your boat tipped over you could be sucked into a sluice gate and held underwater for quite a lot longer than most people can hold their breath for). So we had to pull ashore, lift the boat out, and carry it up or down each hill. Walking rather than rowing gave our arms a rest, at least, but it’s not easy to lift your boat, your day bag, and your oars and then carry them up a hill.

Tuesday 2nd June

On Tuesday, we were supposed to cover the first half of Loch Ness. At Fort Augustus, we got into the River Ness (it was easier to get the boats than the canal would have been, from the back garden of the building we’d kept them at), and appreciated for awhile the current helping us along a little. We passed the smallest lighthouse in the world and headed out onto the Loch.

The wind had picked up, and it was choppy on the Loch. Paddling over waves and against the wind was more challenging than what we  were used to, and the six of us adopted a tight formation in order to keep an eye on one another in case we got into any trouble. We hugged the shore to avoid the worst of the wind, and took an early break at the bottom of the garden of a waterfront house, where we ate our morning energy snacks.

The wind felt okay in the bay we’d sat in, but as soon as we got back out onto the Loch, we could feel the wind: it was getting stronger. Paddling was very hard, and Martin and I redoubled our pace several times. It felt like we were making great time – a hard wind in your face and an ache in your arms will give you the illusion of speed – but when we pulled over and took a break, we looked at the map and realised that we had travelled about half a mile in the last hour. At this rate, we’d barely reach the next Youth Hostel in time for breakfast… the following day.

We pressed on, and stopped again and I looked up the shipping forecast on my phone. The wind was due to get worse still, with gusts of up to 25 miles per hour. We were already at a point at which we spent almost as much time going backwards that forwards, and turning sideways to the current resulted in the boats rocking alarmingly and very quickly filling with water, so we ran them aground, dragged them ashore into a building site, and called for backup to come and pick them up.

The building site turned out to belong to a chap who I’ll hereafter refer to as The Friendliest Man In Scotland, who was quite unsympathetic to the idea of us sitting around and waiting for rescue from the backup vehicle, and shouted and swore and threatened legal action quite a lot. While we waited for the rescue vehicle, I used my phone to find XSS vulnerabilities in his website. You know, like this one.

After we’d got rid of the canoes, we raced to try to catch up with the walkers, who were a couple of hours ahead, finally reaching them a little while after they’d reached the cabins in which we’d be spending our next night. It was disappointing to not be able to canoe the rest of the distance, but it really wouldn’t have been possible to go any further this day, and the weather forecase didn’t look any better for the day after (it turned out to be wrong, but we didn’t know that when we had the canoes returned to their owner).

Wednesday 3rd June

And so we canoeists joined the walkers for the very last day of the Scottish trip. The walk was long and arduous, and Ruth and I probably ought to have set off earlier, because we were right at the back of the group when we entered Inverness, and we actually had to cheat and catch a bus for the final mile in order to not keep them waiting at Inverness Castle for any longer than we already had.

In summary, canoeing across Scotland was… exhausting. Even (and perhaps especially) for the bits that we weren’t actually in canoes. But it was also a great opportunity to see that beautiful country from a new angle – from water level, looking up at the Munroes and along at the Lochs. It could be beautifully still and calm out in the middle of the bigger lochs, and it was great to just stop and sip some water and take in quite how magestic the mountains of Scotland actually are.

At Inverness, we took victory photos (here they are), had a quick McDonalds meal, and got back on the coach to Gretna, then drove back down to Preston.

Thursday 4th June

On Thursday morning, we finally managed to do the thing we’d tried to do the previous week… weather conditions were at last favourable for: a trip in a hot air balloon (thanks, Pendle Balloon Company)!

Ruth was suitably surprised.

The whole experience was a lot of fun, and everybody present got roped in to helping lay out the balloon, inflate it with cold air, check and disentangle the control lines (and all the same stuff again but in reverse at the opposite end).

It’s amazing quite how gentle a balloon take-off is. While the pilot fired the (hot!) burners in a full burn ready for takeoff, I glanced out of the side of the basket and down at the ground… and realised it was slowly moving along underneath us – we were airborne, and I hadn’t even noticed!

We sailed around at 3,500-5,500 feet for awhile, looking down over mid-Lancashire. We got a great view of Houghton Tower, where I’ve been to their annual open air classical concert a number of times (including some I didn’t manage to blog about). Ruth geeked out about different kinds of road junctions and their comparative space/throughput efficiency trade-offs. We came in low over fields of cows and horses and confused the livestock as they trotted towards the barns for their morning feed.

And after an hour of sailing around, we bumped down into a field (which happened to double as a microlite runway, which was convenient) and all helped to pack the balloon away. And it was awesome.

There’s photos from this, too: here they are.

Afterwards

Finally (after a celebratory friend breakfast at a restaurant near where the balloon launched from), we hit the road and got ourselves back to Aberystwyth. It’d been a busy, exhausting, but fun week.