Changing Man

20th to 26th May to – starting our trip down the Nene – and ending it!

We had booked 3 nights at Northampton Marina which is right by the 1st river lock – Town Lock – although you turn right to access the Marina, just before the lock. We’d booked in mainly because there are quite a few locks on the way out of Northampton, which I cannot do single handed and Paul has to work, which makes progressing a little difficult. We decided to have a couple of our early morning cruises, so that we can actually leave town a little later in the week.

Town Lock (aka Lock 1 of 38) – is a conventional lock – much like the ones you find on the canal. But they also have Guillotine Locks on the River Nene. These locks are largely electrically operated (and apparently slow), but there are some manual guillotine gates, which are opened by means of a wheel and have the reputation for being irksome. Boaters are required to leave the guillotine in the up position. If you are locking down, this means that you first have to lower the guillotine. Only then can you fill the lock and proceed as normal. More about these when we encounter one!

Now here’s an interesting fact – the River Nene has the title “The UK’s Slowest Flowing River”. There! And it’s also the 10th longest! There are a total of 38 Locks, one of which – Warmington (No. 31) – is a cause for concern – possibly. Because of the appalling winter we have just had, the “Winter Closures” have overrun. It now looks as though this lock will not open until 30th May, which is probably fine. But we hear on the towpath telegraph that it may be as late as August, which is a different matter. So we are keeping a watching brief. If it slips much further, we may have to have a major rethink of our summer, mainly because we need to get down to the end of the non-tidal river to get to the Middle Level Navigation – which leads us to the River Great Ouse – although that’s another, separate issue!

But before we could leave the Marina, our old friend the rain came back to bite us on the bum! Rivers are much more affected by rainfall than canals. Excess water is removed from canals via weirs and sluices and sometimes by moving water down through locks. Flooding is rare. Rivers are another matter. They are mainly managed by a different authority – the Environment Agency. The EA monitor the flow of rivers and issue warnings when river levels rise. Even something as simple as getting under a bridge can be affected — decreased headroom – so you ignore these warnings at your peril. The Nene has only just been taken OFF red after weeks and weeks – now it was back ON.

For the time being, then, we were doomed to stay put. Then Thursday came and there seemed to be much doom and gloom on the River Nene Forum. Talk of it “not being at its height yet” and a “fair few days before it’ll be lifted” and such like. This got us thinking and we made a decision. We’d clearly picked the wrong year to cruise the East Anglian Waterways. It was not only the capricious nature of the Nene that made us have a re-think. As we’ve already mentioned, Warmington Lock is out of action and there is much pessimistic speculation about when it will actually be repaired. And then, once we were able to get through to Peterborough and thence onto the Middle Level, the way off the Middle Level onto the Great Ouse at Salter’s Lode is also a cause for concern because of silting. And one of the locks on the Ouse is currently duff, to boot. Just too many imponderables. We had been game to give it a go and hope everything fell into place, but this additional strong stream was the last straw. The die was cast. We’d go to Plan B.

Reader – we didn’t really have a Plan B – that was just pure bravado! But we knew we were going to turning round and going back up the locks we’d come down on Sunday! We’d work the rest out as we went.

This involved traversing a very short length (maybe 500m) of river, so not without a modicum of risk. But we figured it couldn’t be any harder to make the turn into the Northampton Arm than turning into Stourport Basin from off the R Severn, when there’s a bit of a flow on.

Our route back to the canals

Our groceries arrived on Thursday evening and Friday morning we were off. It was disappointing, as we’d been looking forward to the East Anglian Waterways. But we didn’t want to half do it. We’d rather come back another year when hopefully things were a bit simpler and do it properly.

It was a cloudy/sunny/cloudy kind of a day and a good temperature for locking. I am able to participate more when we are locking up, especially on a flight where the locks come thick and fast. We have a good routine where Paul sets the lock (i.e. gets it ready for me to enter), I drive in and he shuts the gates and opens the paddles on the top gates. He then goes off to set the next lock. I rise to the top, get off, open the gate and close the paddle towpath side, then cross the bow of the boat to close the paddle on the other side. By this time, Paul has the gates for the next lock open. I drive out and he cycles back down to shut it after me. I then drive into the next lock and we repeat the process. It works very well and we had soon arrived at the top of the flight.

We saw some lovely wildlife – mainly waterbirds – on the way up the flight. And we could hear the little Reed Warblers burbling away in the warm sunshine. They sound like this. And look like this, although you rarely glimpse one. May is peak season for them, having recently arrived back from overwintering in Africa. They always sound very happy to me.

We moored just below Blisworth village that night, planning to go through the tunnel the next day. There was a little noise from the nearby railway, but not enough to disturb our sleep. We were meeting a friend from Northampton and his partner the next day. He was a friend from many years back (30 odd) and we’d met through the Portchester Players, of which he’d been a member for a few years. Thanks to Facebook we’ve stayed in touch and he is a boating fan, having hired for a few years.

We heard on Saturday morning that Lock 11 on the Rothersthorpe flight had been vandalised overnight. The balance beam – the bit on which you push to open/close lock gates – had been completely snapped off, right by where it joins the gate. It wasn’t us guv’nor! But what a relief that we had gone through them or we’d have been stuck again.

Broken balance beam – photo by Sian Bunker

It was a beautiful day and almost criminal to be spending a chunk of it underground! We passed through Blisworth, with its imposing old ex- Corn Mill – now flats. As we made our way down to Blisworth Tunnel entrance, our path was blocked by two very ramshackle boats, tied together but not tied to the bank. We knew there was someone on board as we could hear that they were running the engine of one of them. Paul tooted a couple of times but to no avail. Luckily, the water flow pushed them into the bank and we were able to squeeze past. Someone came out after we had passed and drove the boats away. Odd!

Canal block

Blisworth Tunnel has quite a few notable features viz:

  • it’s 3,075 yards (2,811 meters) long
  • it’s the longest wide, freely navigable tunnel in Europe (it’s wide enough for two narrowboats to pass in opposite directions)
  • it’s the third-longest navigable canal tunnel in the UK, after Standedge and Dudley Tunnels
  • it’s the ninth-longest canal tunnel in the world
  • it’s about 143 feet (43m) below ground level

It’s also very wet in places! Construction was started in 1793. It was closed during the early 80s for repair – a quite massive project and I remember the re-opening ceremony well. It has ventilation shafts along its length that are particularly drippy as you can see from Paul’s video below.

We emerged into lovely sunshine and found a place to moor for our rendezvous. We knew Stoke Bruerne, which is a bit of a mecca for boaters and gongoozlers, would be hectic on such a lovely day, so we went in early. Our guests, Richard and Andrea, were planning to park in Stoke Bruerne and walk up the towpath. Paul went out with the boys to meet them and soon we were clutching glasses of Pimms – the perfect summer drink.

We had lunch and set off for a short cruise – we’d be guided by our guests as to how far they wanted to walk back. A predicted, Stoke Bruerne was absolutely heaving with tourists and the pubs and cafes were all doing a roaring trade. We were all so busy that we forgot to take any photos, which is a shame as it is very attractive, as you can see on this link.

After we had done five of the seven locks, we stopped for tea and cake (home made Lemon Curd Viccy Sarnie) and then it was time to say farewell to our guests. It had been a real pleasure to see them, the last time being some years ago – August 2014 to be precise. We’d shared lots of happy memories from happy times and I’d let slip Richard’s nickname – which was Dicky Love. Oops!

We did the last couple of locks and pulled over for the night and I was amused to note that the W3W address for the spot was ///dude.fights.hippy. It ‘s rare that they make a sentence that makes any sense. We watched a great movie – The Holdovers – which I recommend as being well worth a watch. We were both pretty tired for some reason so had an early night. On a Saturday? I ask you!!

Dire weather warnings were in force for Sunday, so we took our time about setting off, whether to go at all, when to go to make the best of the weather and so on. We eventually set off in bright sunshine at about 13:30 and had a lovely cruise, accompanied by the River Tove much of the way. We couldn’t believe how lovely the weather was. None of the storms and heavy rains forecast, just a lovely late-Spring day. Until around 4pm – when dark clouds gathered, the wind got up and Accuweather told thus that rain was imminent. We found a spot to moor and closed the doors just as the skies cracked open. Thunder, lightning and a torrent. But we’d made it. A nice quiet spot in the countryside on the Northants/Bucks border.

As I write, the sun is back and we think we now have a fully certified Plan B. We are going to head all the way down the Grand Union, exploring the Aylesbury Arm, the Wendover Arm and even the Slough Arm (are we mad??!) and then on into London, via the Paddington Arm, onto the Regent’s Canal, and possibly along to explore of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park Waterways. And maybe even up through Tottenham/Walthamstow to the River Lea towards Broxbourne. And then back down to Brentford and out onto the tidal Thames up to Teddington. Who knows how it will all work out? We certainly don’t! But it’ll be an adventure, I think? Time will tell.

20th to 26 th May1324

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