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Trip down the Grand Union

Friday 5th June

The start of our holiday! The weather forecast didn’t look so good but we decided to set off anyway. We had been loading the boat up for a couple of days but today we took the last few provisions on board. At three o’clock we left the marina and set off for the bottom of the Ashby where it meets the Coventry canal at Marston junction. Passing the Limekilns we saw old Jim sitting in the garden enjoying a pint with his mate. We reached the junction at five o’clock and turned south towards the Oxford canal and Hawksbury junction. Sue was steering when we reached the 180 degree turn so for the first time in her boating career she made the turn while I prepared the stop lock. We had a brief conversation with a couple of hirers before motoring on towards Ansty. The forecast had been for heavy rain but we had seen nothing but sunshine for the previous three hours. By the time we reached Ansty just after seven it was cloudy and starting to get cooler so we decided to keep going and have our dinner one at a time inside. The rain held off until half past seven and even then we only had to endure very light showers. We moored near bridge 26 at half past eight and settled down for the evening, pleased with the progress that we had made. We worked out that we were a mile away from Stretton stop and about six hours from Braunston.


Saturday 6th June

The rain fell heavily during the night and was still going when we had our first cup of tea at seven o’clock. Since we had no need to try and cover any great distance we took our time, showered and had a light breakfast before finally getting underway just before half past ten. Twenty minutes later and we threaded our way through the moored boats at Stretton stop. Leaving the brightly coloured Rose narrowboats behind, we were soon on our way to Newbold on Avon. The first boat on the visitor moorings was Carpe Diem, a boat that had been our neighbour in the Trinity marina before it unexpectedly disappeared at the end of last year. We saw Trina on board but we couldn’t really stop to catch up and find out what she and Stuart have been up to. The drizzle persisted as we made our way through Rugby, it had only been a few weeks since we had been this way so we weren’t too bothered with the poor weather that accompanied us all the way to Hillmorton. We took on water and got rid of our rubbish there before proceeding up through the three locks before we really noticed that the rain had stopped. Shortly afterwards we encountered a boat that had broken free of its moorings but with a bit of deft bargepole work by Sue, we soon passed it by. As we approached the Barby straight, we caught up with a hire boat that just seemed to be moving aimlessly along but before we caught it up completely, we had an incident in a bridge hole where the oncoming boat really got himself out of shape, basically because he was travelling too fast. We decided not to chance finding a mooring in Braunston and resolved to find a place to tie up somewhere before we reached the junction. Sure enough, we were able to get a lovely spot just before bridge 81 on the Oxford canal. With another five and a half hours cruising under our belts we prepared for another day on the cut.


Sunday 7th June

We awoke again to the sound of the wind and rain. This was no surprise of course, it had been forecast and there was no expectation of dry weather until the afternoon. Another relaxed and civilised start to the day saw us showered, breakfasted and cleared up for eleven o’clock. We got all of our wet gear on and sallied forth, heading south towards Braunston and the lighter skies. We were not disappointed, the rain stopped after twenty minutes and by the time we reached the locks, the sun was out. We met up with a hire boat at the bottom lock and between us we ascended the Braunston flight.


After the top lock, there is a short distance before Braunston tunnel and we entered the darkness just after half past one. Following our lock-mate, we only passed one oncoming boat before emerging into the light thirty-five minutes later. Braunston tunnel is one of the best tunnels that we have travelled through, wide, high and with the exception of a little kink towards the southern portal, virtually straight. We emerged into a different world, the skies were blue and the sun was shining through the trees of Bridge Spinneys. We managed to collect a tree trunk floating in the water but managed to dislodge it from the bow fairly easily. Another half an hour and we had turned at Norton Junction and then approached the top lock of the Buckby flight. We descended through these locks in the company of two narrow beam cruisers, crewed by two couples in their seventies, in fact the eldest lady was eighty but that didn’t stop them running around like teenagers. Through the afternoon, we learned that they were from Peterborough and had travelled to the Thames at Oxford and were now on their way home. We eventually cleared the bottom lock and left our new septuagenarian aquaintances looking for fish and chips at Whilton marina. We carried on for another three quarters of an hour, continuing to be sandwiched between the A5 and the west coast main railway line, all the time flirting with the noisy M1 motorway. It was only on this part of the journey that we grew to appreciate the Grand Union canal for what it is, a broad canal. Other than the broad locks, it is easy to ignore the breadth of the canal through the locks at Braunston and Buckby and of course a tunnel is a tunnel, no matter how wide it is. By comparison to the narrow canals that we are used to, the Grand Union is a great treat, easy to navigate with no risk of grounding.


We decided to moor at Weedon and got a prime position near the village. Weedon is one of those places that you pass through in a car without noticing anything, it lies on the junction of the A5 and the A45 with just a set of traffic lights to halt the motorist’s progress. After we had tied up for the evening, we walked back to the bridge and the main road, ignoring the pub we made straight for the chip shop and by seven o’clock we were back on the towpath; deck chairs, table, plated up fish, chips and mushy peas washed down with a glass of wine. The sun eventually dropped below the trees and we called it a day. On checking the weather forecast, we saw that the rest of the week looked to be very promising.


Monday 8th June

It was nice to wake up and not hear the sound of rain on the roof. We got ourselves organised and got on our way by twenty to ten. We stopped to take on water before setting off again at twenty five past ten, heading towards Gayton Junction. The day was pleasant; warm but not too hot, windy but not problematic, quiet yet interesting as we passed through the Northamptonshire countryside without incident. The bar opened at midday and a short while later we passed Gayton and the entry to the way to Northampton. A few minutes after one o’clock and we we were slipping into Blisworth tunnel, notable for being the third longest in use on the system. Like the Braunston tunnel, Blisworth is wide and high, however, unlike the Braunston tunnel, it is also straight. Our passage through was very smooth and we only met one boat on the way. We moored at Stoke Bruerne just after two o’clock and after we had a drink, we took a walk down to the shop and museum.


Returning to the boat at half past four we decided to move on down through the locks. We reached the top lock alongside NB Meridien and we all went down through the flight in just over an hour. There was a bit of excitement when an ambulance turned up to treat youth who had fallen in the canal. As the air ambulance landed, the story unfolded. The youth had decided, in his drug induced state, to untie a boat waiting for the lock. The boater ran back to his boat and the youth tried to push him in the canal, there is no contest between a determined boater and a stoned youth so the young man ended up in the water. His friend jumped in to rescue him and the result was a call-out to the emergency services. We said our goodbyes to the Meridien crew at the bottom lock and pressed on to Yardley Wharf, just before bridge 60.


Tuesday 9th June

No rain on Tuesday morning, so we were moving by quarter to nine on the short hop to Cosgrove where we took on water and got rid of our waste. We went through the only lock alongside a shared ownership boat and then headed towards Milton Keynes. The Ouse aqueduct was a bit of a let down in terms of scenic value but we took a picture nonetheless.


A shopping stop at Wolverton by bridge 71 broke our journey for half an hour next to the railway line. We ploughed on through the afternoon with a ham sandwich for lunch as we skirted around Milton Keynes. It’s a strange route because you don’t really get any idea that you are on the edge of such a large conurbation. The usual wildlife abounds in this area but we were struck by the number of herons, who appeared to be very tame. We even saw a Tern dive into the water and emerge with a small fish in its beak, we would see many others but none as successful as this. We passed through the locks at Fenny Stratford, Stoke Hammond and Soulbury before mooring for the night near bridge 109. After feeding the ducks as well as ourselves, we turned in for the night, exhausted by our day’s cruising.


Wednesday 10th June

We left our countryside mooring at nine o’clock and made our way to Leighton Buzzard, we were fortunate enough to catch a boat at the only lock and made our way through very quickly. We saw this sorry sight along the way.


We reached the visitor moorings at half past ten before making another shopping trip to Tesco. The rain made an appearance just after we returned to the boat so we had a bit of breakfast before setting off again. We turned and stopped at Grove lock and then the heavens opened so we were glad that our timing was as good as it was. Checking the weather forecast, we decided to stay there for the night and make the best of the of the weather in the days to come.


Thursday 11th June

The sun was up early and so were we. After resting the day before when the rains came, we were ready to do some travelling. We headed north at twenty past eight and an hour later we had stopped at Leighton Buzzard, refilled the water and emptied our rubbish. We expected the odd shower but none came and we passed through the locks at Old Soulbury with an elderly couple just after eleven o’clock. We made a stop at Fenny Stratford and walked to the railway station to check out the trains to Milton Keynes. seeing that they were not too frequent and involved a change at Bletchley we decided to forget that idea and move on. The shallow lock at Fenny Stratford caught us out with its swing bridge but we eventually made it through and skirted around Milton Keynes before mooring above Cosgrove lock just after half past five. The sun was still shining and so we sat out on the back deck with a drink to relax. We were quickly joined by some courageous ducks that had no problem in treating the boat like it was their own. We took a few pictures before sitting down to our own evening meal.




Friday 12th June

Another sunny morning, this time in Cosgrove. We had a long day the day before and we aimed to have another on this day too. We shaped ourselves and left our mooring at nine o’clock, heading for Stoke Bruerne. Less than two hours later and we were taking on water at the bottom of the Stoke flight, ready for our ascent. We made the journey along with Alan and Linda from nb “Our Dream” and we mad it through six of the seven locks in an hour and a half. Linda decided to visit the shop at the top to buy an book, a task that she promised would only take a few minutes. We waited with her husband, dog and boat for half an hour before Sue finally found her meandering around the exhibits being put together for the festival that would be taking place over the weekend. We eventually left the top lock at one o’clock and followed the pair into the Blisworth tunnel. Sue kept us both dry by her careful use of a golf umbrella, we pulled out of the tunnel back into the sunshine, forty minutes later. Unlike on our south-bound journey, we passed a number of boats travelling in the opposite direction through the tunnel.

Leaving the tunnel we kept tramping north, taking in a home made pizza on the way for lunch. We passed a horse drawn boat and a steamer, presumably all heading south for the Stoke Bruerne festival.


We couldn’t find a suitable mooring at Weedon so we ascended five of the locks from Whilton Marina to Norton Junction. A delicious casserole from the slow cooker rounded the day off leaving us with a whole host of choices as to which direction to take in the morning; North towards Leicester? West towards Braunston? If Braunston, where next? Rugby? Banbury or Leamington? So much excitment after a long day at the tiller caused the two writers to crash into bed for the evening, tomorrow would have to take care of itself!

Saturday 13th June

With only two locks to get through at the top of the Buckby flight, we set off at nine o’clock. An hour later and we had reached the top, taken on water and got rid of our waste before making our way towards the Braunston tunnel. We met a number of boats on the way before emerging into the sunlight at eleven o’clock. The Braunston lock flight was particularly busy but we paired up with another boat and reached the bottom without incident by half past twelve. We were fortunate enough to secure a mooring outside the marina by bridge one and took the opportunity to walk up to the village for a few supplies. We returned to the boat and had a sandwich before walking along to Midland Chandlers where we bought some rope to serve as an additional centre line for the boat. We returned to our mooring, untied and called for diesel before starting out on our afternoon cruise. The weather continued to be perfect and two hours later we tied up near Wigrams turn, our plan for the rest of the trip was to make our way to Leamington and Warwick.

Sunday 14th June

Change of plan!

The stomach upset that had plagued Sue on and off during the previous week returned in the early hours of Sunday morning. A quick calculation made us fourteen hours from home, so at 6am, we made a start. An ambitious undertaking but one that would allow us to be on the doctor’s doorstep first thing on Monday morning. For the first time on this holiday, we were working against the clock. In principle, with almost sixteen hours of daylight ahead of us, there should be no problem in making the trip. However, this had been forecast as a sunny Sunday so maybe there would be too many boats to allow us a straight passage and then again maybe fourteen hours in the baking sun without a break would be too much to manage. Travelling along familiar canals would be our only advantage, so we went for it.

After turning at Wigram’s we headed back into the low morning sun, making Braunston turn at eight o’clock. The traffic started building as we made the next leg of the trip to Hillmorton, reaching the locks just after ten fifteen. We had a couple of boats ahead of us but with the oncoming traffic we cleared the bottom lock an hour later, all of this despite the grumpy boater at the top lock who insisted on doing everything himself but with a manner that saw him narrowly avoidng getting thumped. A couple of hire boats whose crews were clueless and some equally clueless parents who seemed to have no concept of the potential dangers posed to their offspring around the lock areas.

Anyway, we motored on towards Sutton stop with only one further incident, an oncoming Rose narrowboats day hire boat at Newbold on Avon. Stretton stop was relatively empty and the small swing bridge was open so we passed through without waiting.

Ten hours after we had started and we were passing the Rose and Castle at Ansty, the beer garden was busy with families and couples enjoying the June sunshine. We picked something up on the prop under the bridge which resulted in a short pit-stop to remove a rope fender. This only cost us about ten minutes and we were soon approaching Sutton stop just about five o’clock. It was fairly busy there but with such a shallow lock to empty and fill, we were soon round the turn and on to the Coventry canal. This territory is very familiar to us so we knew that were definitely on target to reach Hinckley for eight o’clock.

Of course by now, most people were moored or mooring for the evening, so much like the start of our day’s journey, we saw fewer and fewer boats as the evening went on.

We rounded the bend at Marston junction an hour later and soon we passed one of our marina pals, Steve the geordie aboard nb Serendipity, heading in the opposite direction. We saluted each other in customary naval fashion, traded friendly insults and then carried on. Still no sign of Mr England on the Bulkington trailer park, one day we might see him.

One hour to go as we approached Burton Hastings, the heat of the sun dying with the day’s end. Again like the start of the day, the sun was low enough to get in the steerer’s eyes under a couple of bridges but there was no problem because there were no oncoming boats.

We passed Jim moored by bridge thirteen and then we were passing the Limekilns with its busy beer garden. We pulled into the marina at five past eight, had we not picked up the fender on the prop, we would have made our eight o’clock target.

Our trip was over but we were to count ourselves lucky when we sat at home on Monday afternoon watching and listening to the electrical storms overhead.