MK State of Mind

27/5 to 2/6 – along the Grand Union towards the Capital

We left our lovely, quiet, rural mooring mid-morning – Paul had been feeling a bit off colour and washed out/no energy for a couple of days, poor love. Nothing specific – just out of sorts. Hopefully he”l be back on song in a couple of days – otherwise he’s going overboard. I am no nurse!

It was a showery old day – very hot when the sun was out interspersed with short, sharp showers. I’ve lost count of how many times my coat came on and off! We passed under the beautiful Cosgrove Bridge, looking a little more weathered than the last time we had seen it, but I guess we are all looking a bit more weathered after 30 odd years! My stepmother, Nanny Lynne, has a beautiful (but tiny) painting on an ivory piano key of the bridge, which I have always coveted.

We wanted to call in at Cosgrove services to dump the loo and fill up with water, but had to wait as another boat was watering. Once watered, we passed through Cosgrove Lock – in one of those showers. The canal splits into two just above Cosgrove Lock, where the now disused Buckingham arm veers off. The Buckingham Arm is the subject of a restoration project.

We then went over the Iron Trunk Aqueduct (which carries the cut across the River Great Ouse, 40 ft up). The Aqueduct comprises two linear iron troughs, on a single, central stone pier. It was built in 1811 and was the world’s first wide canal cast iron trough. The structure was cast at the Ketley foundry in Coalbrookdale, which had produced the now disused Longden-on-Tern aqueduct for engineer Thomas Telford.

At the far end of the aqueduct, we spotted Scooperman! We just had to stop for an ice-cream – but, just at the last minute, Paul decided he didn’t really want one after all. Reader – this is the measure of how poorly he was feeling! This was the first time in living history and our 39 years as an item, that he has been known to turn down an ice-cream. A measure of just how poorly he was feeling.

The next town was Wolverton, once a famous rail town and home to the Royal Train. It, too, has changed a great deal since we used to ply this stretch regularly, but still has its famous railway mural. The mural is maintained by volunteers from the local branch of the Inland Waterways Association.

Wolverton is on the Northern edge of the new town of Milton Keynes. We were looking for somewhere to moor and found it near the Stanton Low Country Park. A nice quiet spot overlooking the Great Ouse Valley. I despatched Paul to have a lie-down while I worked on this blog and was overjoyed to hear my first cuckoo of this year. Better late than never! He’ll be off to Africa e’er long. It’s very sad that the species is in decline. Hearing a cuckoo call is part of Spring. I feel that they announce that summer is on its way.

Coming to MK feels a bit like coming home, although we never actually lived there. Those who have known me for a while will know that my Dad and Stepmum used to manage Willowbridge Marina, in nearby Bletchley, and we had countless happy visits there. It was where we told them that we were engaged and then later that they were going to be grandparents. My Brother’s first wedding was held there and George used to spend his summer holidays there, helping dear old Charlie the Gardener. So for a while, our boating was up and down the Grand Union and we used to know it very well. After Dad retired, they used to over-winter there on their boat Sam Gunter but, like us, be out all summer, exploring. It’s where we got the idea of doing it from.

We decided not to move on on Tuesday – although it’s a lock free stretch for a few hours, but we were in a nice spot and rain was forecast. And for once, the forecast was correct. It rained on and off all day. But Wednesday was a different story and I set off late morning in bright sunshine.

We met a group of kids and their parents on a litter picking expedition, led by the Parks Trust. They are responsible for caring for the many parks and green spaces in the city – over 6,000 acres. It was great to see the kids doing such a positive and useful activity in the school holidays. We were also passed by Electra, the electric community narrowboat operated by the BMK Waterways Trust. We had welcomed several of their members to Electrika, recently.

I had forgotten how much green space there is in MK. The area was created in 1974 as a New Town by merging the old local authorities of  Bletchley, Newport Pagnell, Wolverton , and part of the old Winslow Rural District. It became a city in 2022. MK has a grid system of 10 Vertical roads and 10 Horizontal roads, each one having a name and the letters H or V – for instance, Childs Way is also H6 and Grafton Street is V6.

The MK Grid Road System

Cruising through, I couldn’t help but think how well they have managed the area. On the canal, you’d hardly know you were in a major conurbation. It’s really attractive and I much enjoyed seeing bits I remembered and new (to me) bits – such as the pub at the 111-berth Campbell Wharf Marina – which opened in 2019. It seemed to me that there were more boats along the towpath that looked like they rarely moved (lots of odds and ends on the towpath) and very many more wide-beams. Some of the famous “redways” accompany the canal on its route through the city. There are over 200 miles of them – entirely traffic free routes for cyclists and walkers and runners. A fantastic idea.

MK Redways
The canal route through Milton Keynes

Our destination was MK Marina – formerly Peartree Marina. We fancied a meal out and a chunk of leccy and had rung ahead and booked a berth. While Paul (who is feeling much better now) worked, I moved us down there, arriving around 14:45. It was a very pleasant cruise with very few other boats on the move. It’s more or less central on the map above (which shows the canal’s route from Wolverton to WIllowbridge Marina). The peace was only shattered by the screaming of kids from the nearby theme park – Gullivers..

Arrival was a bit haphazard, but we soon got tied up and hooked up, after a bit of awkward manoeuvring, executed flawlessly by our gallant cap’n. The Marina has an on-site hotel, pub and carvery plus an Indian and Chinese takeaway, so we were spoilt for choice food wise. No cooking for me tonight!

We planned to stay there that night and then I would move us along to the first lock in Fenny Stratford either in time for Paul’s seldom-taken lunch-break or in time for him to finish work. It’s only one very shallow lock and the canal becomes more rural once you pass Willowbridge. I have just been reminded of Toni’s Bakery in nearby Bletchley. He made the most amazing Italian bread. It was so good that we bought an extra freezer and, when Dad and Lynne came to visit, they brought a job lot of Toni’s bread with them. We’d halve them (they were big loaves) pack them in plastic and freeze, so that we’d have an unending supply!

All I can say about our meal was that we chose Chinese and that the best thing about it was not having to cook. Take from that what you will! We had a quiet night but awoke to a changeable day. Once again I was the designated driver and I fully expected to get a little wet! Needless to say, I was not disappointed and had to crack out – for only the second time in Old Nick’s life – my trusty People’s Poncho. We bought them before we moved onto the boat because they looked perfect for boating and also for cycling (it clips onto your handlebars.). They’re not cheap but I think they are very well made, do the job and come with a handy shoulder bag, which they pack neatly into, so are also perfect for walking and outdoor events (packed weight 460g). Have you ever seen the movie “Don’t Look Now”?

When we went to collect the deposit – a hefty £30 for returning our key fob, there was a note on the office door saying “Closed until Friday”. We weren’t really sure what to do. Luckily Paul met someone who works part-time at the Marina, who undertook to sort it out for us. You might not worry too much about losing a tenner but thirty quid, you think twice about! Watch this space.

As I cruised along MK’s green highway I was struck once again by the lush foliage, and my nostrils were buffeted by the scent of the gorgeous Dog Rose (Rosa Canina) and Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum). The dog roses come in all shades, from paper-white to full pink. It’ll only be a few months and I’ll be looking at rosehips, though. There’s a happy thought!

The canal is stalked along its way through MK by Lombardy Poplar Trees ( Populus nigra ‘Italica’ ) aka Black Poplars. The trees were planted by Milton Keynes Development Corporation along most of the canal in Milton Keynes to denote the canal’s route. And they really enhance it with their elegant spires pointing straight to the sky, redolent of the French canals. I always think.

We passed another of our old haunts, the Plough at Simpson, where we had first seen Mikron Theatre, then featuring a young Mark Williams, of Fast Show and Father Brown fame. You can see a pic of him in his Mikron days here.

We arrived – as planned – at Fenny Stratford lock, just in time to coincide with Paul’s lunch hour and were soon through. It’s a mere 1ft 1 inch deep but is complicated by having a well-used swing bridge over the middle of it. The Red Lion pub – one of our evening cruises from WIllowbridge – sits right beside the lock. Much change in evidence all along this stretch.

We were soon approaching Willowbridge, not without mixed feelings. It had been so beautifully kept when Dad and Lynne were there and we knew things had changed. I’m not sure we were quite prepared for how much, though. It had gone from Hobbiton to Mordor, quite frankly.

It now turns its back on the canal, by means of a high wooden fence. The once beautiful field, always kept neatly mowed, skirted by weeping willows, and used as a very popular small Caravan Site – a CL – with room for no more than 5 caravans, is now a place for old boats to die. It is covered with boats in varying stages of rigor mortis. It’s horrible to see. I guess people pay money to leave their boats there but it’s a bit of an eyesore to be honest. Just my opinion, obviously, and I have no wish to upset the current proprietors.

We motored on a bit and eventually pulled over, mid afternoon, around half way between Willowbridge and Stoke Hammond Lock. Not the prettiest spot but it would do for tonight.

Apart from me having one of my “can’t get to sleep” nights, it was a good night. We had a lazy start, finally setting off around 11. Just as we were setting off, a hire boat with a crew of two came up, so we said we’d meet them at Stoke Hammond Lock, which was just around the corner. They were a very nice couple, having their first short canal break and thoroughly enjoying it, although the chap had that slightly harassed look that you often see in newbie boaters.

It was flipping freezing – who would expect to be wearing a coat, fully zipped up to the neck on May 31st? We got through the lock and then started our passage up the 3 Locks at Soulbury. The pub there is aptly, but somewhat unimaginatively, called The Three Locks – another of our old haunts. We had an Ocado delivery arriving there and hoped that we’d meet them somewhere up that flight. We hadn’t allowed for the fact that there were vollies on duty, because we planned to take it slowly. Luckily, the delivery was pretty much bang on time and arrived as we were entering Lock 3 of 3. Result!

We thanked the vollies and went on our way. I mused about the beautiful landscape i was seeing, and how I probably did not fully appreciate it, back in the day. But it seemed to be getting chillier and chillier and we decided that we would pull over when we saw a space, with rings, outside the The Globe Inn – yep you’ve guessed it. Another old haunt! We decided to use the afternoon for Paul to give the generator its annual service. You may recall he did a very useful post, with accompanying video on DIY Vetus genny servicing a couple of years back. Here’s a link to it.

As I’m writing this, it does sound like all we did in the Willowbridge days was visit pubs! Sadly, the favourite – The Duncombe Arms, a Charles Wells pub in Little Brickhill – is no longer a pub. Happy memories of some great nights there in days of yore. It lives on in our memories, with larger than life chef, Kevin O’Rourke, still serving up a great steak and Red Stripe. Happy days.

Paul did an excellent job with the genny – well I think so! – and finished in the nick of time to shower and get to the pub for dinner. We met a very nice couple in there with the sweetest cavapoo (Poppy) and had a pleasant time chatting and sharing stories. Pubs are great places for being sociable – I guess that’s their USP?

We had forgotten to make bread so we left without breaking our fast – other than a cuppa and couple of biccies. We were bound for Leighton Buzzard – home of The Baron Knights! And a handy canalside Tescos. We passed Wyvern Shipping hire base and stopped for a quick chat with the owner, James, whom we remembered from WIllowbridge days. He said that when Dad and Lynne were running the yard, Willowbridge was at its finest, which is pretty much on point!

There are 2 hour shopping moorings outside Tesco and Paul dropped me off while he went on to get water and dump the loo and refuse. The moorings are very handy for passing boats and don’t seem to be abused, which is good. Remember the days when you popped in to buy a few odds and ends and the bill always came to more than you anticipated – like £20? Today’s odds and ends cost me not far short of £50! and it wasn’t caviar and champagne. – mostly bread and fruit and veg. God I’m old!

After provisioning etc, we made our way up through Grove Lock and Grove Church Lock, noting that the church now appears to be a residence. Grove Church Lock also had a repaired balance beam – presumably a temporary measure. But for how long, I wonder? I noticed whilst coming up in Grove Lock, hanging on to our centre rope, a groove where countless other people have hung onto countless bits of rope. They always amaze me, such things. Note that I have moved my rope to the side of where it would usually sit, to take the pic below. Once again it was chilly, and we decided to pull over when we saw a handy length of Armco with room for just one boat. Us!

The mooring is not very far from the site of the infamous Great Train Robbery (1963). Such an audacious and unnecessarily violent crime. If you are not familiar with the story, it makes a good short read here. Interesting to note that the most infamous criminal, Ronni Biggs – who escaped from Wandsworth prison after serving just 15 months and ended up in Brazil, from where he could not be extradited – had only one job – to recruit a replacement train driver!

Paul actually walked up to see the “bridge where it happened” but – of course – there was nothing to see. It was a phenomenal sunset though – although we weren’t in the best place to see it. It looked like the fields on the horizon were on fire. As we went to bed, the sky was clear and there were hundreds of stars on show. Looks like a fine day tomorrow!

We awoke to sunshine. Whoop! We quickly stripped the bed and chucked it in the machine and then washed a load of clothes. A good drying day has to be taken advantage of! I also made bacon on top of toasted cheesy bread with a poached egg on top of that. Delish. We had no real plan for Sunday – other than moving on a bit and finding a nice mooring.

We passed through a total of 4 locks, although it seemed more as it was pretty hot and they are big old brutes! Not complaining about the heat, by the way! I can’t say that we found a particularly nice mooring but we found one that would do. We are overlooked by Ivinghoe Beacon. which is rather beautiful. As I write, I’m not sure how long we’ll stay here or whether we’ll do some early morning or evening cruising in the forthcoming week, but one thing is clear – we’ll be exploring the Aylesbury Arm – with its 16 narrow locks – for the first time for many years.

27th May to 2nd Jun1324
Cumulative85 70

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *