A little bit of Leamington

We dropped Mum off at Leamington Spa station, a stones throw from the canal, then I nipped into the Co op to pick up something for tea, I’ll only be a few minutes……

I discovered the Jephson Gardens. these Victorian Gardens where created in the mid 1800‘s to enhance the river Leam walk and named in honour of the Dr Henry Jephson, who promoted Leamington as a spa town.

Not only did it have a traditional formal garden three was a hot house full of tropical beauties. Passion flowers

And pink powder puff flowers -yes that’s what they’re actually known as

And a big fountain in the middle of a lake

All very pretty and I have a feeling we’ll be back next weekend.

Wending our way towards Warwick

From Lapworth, Firecrest was to wend her way onto the Grand Union Canal towards Warwick

but first I hopped on a train into Birmingham to meet Mum on her connecting train. It was to be her first visit to our new home, and I couldn’t wait to show her our new lifestyle.

We’d planned a short evening cruise to the start of the Hatton flight so she knew what a tranquil life we lead,

before the daunting prospect of 21 locks in a row. We even got our first photo of a kingfisher. -humour me, it’s in the centre, get your magnifying glass out.

Tuesday broke with weather set fair for the flight and the boat ahead of us were not only happy to share the locks but they’d been boating for many years and had a wealth of experience to share. Thankyou Alan and Heather from NB Hull Cottage.

And looking back.

And before we knew it we were moored up and having lunch at The Cape of Good Hope pub, patting ourselves on the back for a job well done. Then in keeping with our tradition, mum and I played scrabble and she won.

The weather changed on Wednesday so mum and I caught a bus into Warwick centre and found some nice coffee shops and had lunch in the restaurant at the Lord Leycster Hospital, it was delicious and I would recommend it. We couldn’t resist a wander around St Mary’s church for our history fix and I discovered that the chained and muzzled bear on the Warwick coat of arms had come about because one of the early earls of Warwick had captured a bear in the forest and kept it on a ragged staff, he then was found guilty of treason but later granted a reprieve, however the King decreed that whilst the earl couldn’t be silenced as an act of symbolism, his bear should be kept muzzled.

I won the scrabble on Wednesday but sadly Mum had to return to her home on Thursday so we declared it a draw.

 

Aquaducts and Tunnels

 


On the Stratford canal we passed over the longest aquaduct in England at Edstone (pontcycsyllte is the longest in uk and Wales). 475feet long. Aquaducts are usually more impressive when viewed from below but this one spans a river a road and a railway, and is 28feet high so quite scary looking down.

The aquaducts towpaths on the Stratford canal are unusual because they were built to run at the depth of the canal trough, not the usual level with the water.

Shortly after we turned onto the Grand Union canal we came to a tunnel. It’s interesting because it has a separate adjacent tunnel for the horses towing path.

The Shrewley tunnel, built in 1799. It leaks. Some say it’s haunted but I think it’s just the boaters shrieking when they get dripped on.

Bye bye Rivers Hello Canals

It feels good to be back on a canal again. This time, up the Stratford canal towards Lapworth Junction.

I’d not given it much thought before but somehow the shape of a narrowboat just feels right on a canal, but is out of proportion on the river. And we feel more connected to the landscape around us.

Stratford canal has narrow locks and very narrow bridges. And with 34 locks to do in 2 days I decided it was time Eric did some of the hard work and I took the plunge and had a go at driving. The poor boat had acquired so many scratches over the past few weeks that any accidental intimacy with the brickwork wasn’t going to cause a major meltdown. Now I can proudly say I have now driven Firecrest through locks and all three of us, me Eric and the boat survived.

We didn’t think we were going to get very far on day two of this journey, just after we left Wootton Wawen we realised there was a hold up ahead with a boat stuck in the entrance of a lock. They hadn’t been able to open the gate fully so thought that the weight of their boat would complete the job pushing it open….. Nope, they got stuck fast. As they were still within walking distance of their hire base they called Anglo Welsh, who managed to wriggle them out by letting some water in, and then with the help of the trusty boaters friend, -the mallet, the gate opened and closed after them so they were on their way. To be fair the same could have happened to any of us, it wasn’t their fault. As no such luck for the three following boats, the gate jammed again and no amount of brute force would budge it. We called CaRT out, who arrived within the hour and used rakes and poles to shift an obstruction for us. Apparently there has been a lot of vandalism on the canal and they have to rake out the locks several times a week. This lock will be recorded as our slowest at 2.5 hours. But it couldn’t have happened in a prettier place and we enjoyed chatting to our new friends and really it added a bit of excitement to the day.

One of the things the Stratford canal is known for is its Barrel houses. These unusually shaped houses were built as lock keepers cottages at the same time the canals were built, by the same navvies. Because they knew how to build bridge arches they built the house roofs they same way.

The bridges also feature an interesting design. They don’t meet completely in the middle allowing the horses tow rope to be passed through.

 

Stratford upon Avon

What can I say about Stratford except that I don’t enjoy commercialism and large crowds.

The cruise upriver was beautiful, England at its best, and more lovely people to share the locking with, even rounding the corner into the final lock on our river journey with the famous Trinity spire in view was beautiful. We chose to moor on the river with the park on one side and the town on the other. Our plan was to have two nights on the river then two nights in Bancroft basin which is where the Stratford canal joins the river. It is a tourist attraction in its own right being part of the open space outside the RSC theatre. It’s fun and lively and full of atmosphere and I would have been happy to let the gongoozlers (people who stand and watch narrowboats) take photos of Firecrest. However after 5 minutes of being enticed by  river cruises, bike hire, walking tours, open topped bus rides, Shakespeare’s new house, old house, birth place, grand daughters house, his school etc etc I s overloaded and wanted to escape.

The Shakespeare houses were, at face value, expensive, I can’t say whether or not they were good value, but whilst Eric stayed on the boat to work I did set out to be the tourist. The queue outside was colossal and I knew that I would have been herded through exhibits unable to absorb the atmosphere so alas I retreated back to the sanctuary of my beloved boat. I did however stumble upon “the slaughter house” it is a heritage community centre and cafe not a place of butchery. A charity set up to provide a space for less advantaged groups in Stratford, whilst nurturing community projects. And whilst I was having a mug of tea and a huge piece of home made chocolate Brownie for £2.50! I got chatting to a lady who was one of the volunteer guides for one of the Shakespeare houses. I explained (politely) how I felt and she said she completely understood. It’s a catch 22 situation. I’m glad we have a great playwrite to be proud of and I’m glad that Stratford thrives on his legacy. But Stratford won’t miss me not taking part.

We did stay 2 nights on the river. And we did treat ourselves to tickets for the theatre. We saw a comedy called Visa Versa. And whilst yes that was also expensive, the theatre, company and production are all top rate and an experience I thoroughly enjoyed. We snook away on Saturday morning past the hot and sweaty park run runners and set off back home onto the canal network.

Bidford on Avon

We expected a peaceful stay at Bidford, a small town with no ground breaking historical Abbey to talk about. However as always we did learn something new. The only mooring was outside the pub (The Frog, very nice and to be recommended, lovely view from the window) but they were hosting an event that evening. Bell boat racing.

We first saw a ‘bell boat’ while we were at Woverly on the Staffs and Worcester canal. Although at the time, we didn’t realise what they were. Twin canoes catamaran style for 8-12 plus a helmsman. We’ve seen them several times since, always full of happy people having a good time. This time we got to talk to the person obviously in charge. Andy Train, his father, David created Bell Boats. Andy represented Great Britain as an Olympic canoeist in the 80‘s and David was on the coaching team. He wanted something motivational, to encourage team work, that everyone young, old and the less able could enjoy. The company has a strong environmental conscience raising awareness that the best way to solve a problem, be it global or local is to work together as a team. By working together we can achieve great things.

Unwittingly we were sharing this ethos as we were sharing a mooring with the same boat that had helped us up the locks on our first day up the Avon

Evesham

Continuing upstream to Evesham for two nights, where the river is wide and busy with river trips, sculling rowers, and swans. the floodplain has been made into a pleasant park with mooring. Evesham is on the edge of the Cotswolds so has both a thriving tourist trade and a fruit growing tradition. So the parks are well used as a congregating point with a lot of the ‘no fishing’ signs written in Polish.

We decided to take a guided walking tour around the town and had an hour packed with information. Evesham town grew around its Abbey which was first built 700s when Eof a lowly swine herd was looking for his pigs in the forest. he looked up and saw a vision of the Virgin Mary. He rushed to tell Bishop Ecgwin of Tewkesbury, who saw the same vision. He persuaded Ethelred King of Mercia to create the Abbey.

The Abbey became a focal point for pilgrims, many seeking healing and as the monks had realised sick people often brought infections with them so built 2 more churches within the prosperous Abbey grounds, one for the local community and one for the pilgrims.  Moving swiftly on a few centuries to the 1265, the battle of Evesham was the turning point in the second Barons war (I’m a bit confused but I think the barons were effectively trying to reassert the essence of the Magna Carter which would hold the King to account, please don’t rely upon any of my summarised history to be accurate). Simon de Montford, the earl of Leicester was defeated by Prince Edward resulting in a ruthless bloody massacre.

Bad King John was raising taxes to pay for fighting and loosing wars in France, the barons were being killed off both physically and financially by all these battles, Simon de Montfort recognised that people would be less resistant to paying more tax if they had a say in the matter and therefore Simon instigated a groundbreaking system of representation by a common man from every region gathering in a parliament for consultation.

In 1540 the dissolution of the monasteries saw Evesham Abbey plundered and sold to a entrepreneur who sold the stone and made a lot of money. The town was allowed to keep the two remaining churches.

Just in case you think we are only interested in historical churches, Evesham also has a nice leisure centre and we took ourselves off for a swim.

 

 

Up the Avon to Pershore

Most of the mooring is time restricted to 48hours on the Avon, so although we could have enjoyed another day or two in Tewksebury we set off on our first cruise going upstream on a river. It would also be the first time we had done an unmanned river lock. These locks are wide enough for two boats and are fast flowing so the instructions are to use ropes both fore and aft. This needed some consideration as I would be on the lockside and neither Eric’s arms aren’t long enough to reach the bow and stern at the same time or are any of our ropes. So following the advice from Nicky the Tewkesbury lockie, the solution is to tie three ropes together and lay it down the length of the boat, once I am lockside Eric hooks the ropes around our boaters pole and passes it up to me. I wrap it around the bollard and pass it back to him so he can now hold the bow steady. And we do the same with the stern rope. It’s a bit of a palaver but it works. What’s disconcerting is having planned this all out, we shared the first lock with an experienced boater didn’t hold his boat with any ropes at all. I wonder how long it will be before we are confident of our capabilities to disregard the guide book. And our nervousness wasn’t helped any when we called into the chandlery to buy a longer rope, and the salesman couldn’t understand why the lockies were telling us to do it that way. Ho hum.  We’ll opt for safe and secure for now.

We shared all 4 of the locks on this section with the same experienced boater and he was actually very complementary of Eric’s boat handling skills, and by the end of this trip we did feel a lot less intimidated.

The cruise was pretty and easy, quite a few fibreglass cruisers that seem to travel faster than a formula 1 racing car, some sailing boats that go round in circles as the wind dictates, lots of canoes, that know to avoid 20 tons of oncoming steel and relatively few narrowboats.

 

We said goodbye to our travelling companions at Pershore and as there was a dragon boat race in progress mooring was limited but we were invited to double breast against NB Eli. A kind gesture as we were unsure of the protocol of asking to double up.

Pershore is another lovely little town centred around one main high street and its Norman Abbey. We didn’t get to go inside but enjoyed walking around the grounds, this lovely carving in an old tree represents the gift of learning.

 

 

Down River to Tewkesbury

Waving goodbye to Worcester, we set off down the River Severn for Tewkesbury.  It’s a big river and feels a bit like our equivelant of ploughing down a motorway to get from A to B. Not a lot of stopping places and not much visibility beyond the treeline, albeit an impressive treeline.

The River Avon joins the Severn at Tewkesbury so we swerved past the hidden sandbank and joined the queue for the lock onto the Avon. This is where the Avon Navigation Trust take your money for the privilege of cruising this river as its not managed by the canal and rivers trust. We paid our dues, £60 for 2 weeks, plus £3 a night to moor in Tewkesbury.

In contrast to Worcester, Tewkesbury High Street hadn’t fallen victim to too many concrete monstrosities, the Georgians got there first so the High Street is a fascinating mix through the ages, each era bringing its own style.

In the Middle Ages the battle of Tewkesbury was pivotal in the War of the Roses when the Yorkists defeated the Lancastrians. Today Tewkesbury is adorned with the banners and coats of arms of the influential families and all there’s a short inscription beside each banner. I think there are 160 displayed around the town. But I can only absorb so many Henry’s and Edwards before they all merge into one big muddle. I wonder how today’s politics will look in 500 years.

The towns history has also been dominated by the Norman Abbey, built for the Benedictine monks in 1122. But following the dissolution of the monasteries and Henry VIII lined his coffers, the towns people bought the Abbey for £453 and it became the parish church. This week there was a visiting Canadian choir singing choral evensong which made it even more special.

 

 

Wonderful Worcester

Firstly I must apologise for the lack of blog posts recently. Several things have conspired against us sharing our adventures, mainly we’re just too busy enjoying ourselves.  But also inbetween some unbearable heat,  we’ve had quite a lot of cloudy skies which don’t make for good photographs, and I’m struggling to transfer them onto the blog.

But back to Worcester. A lovely city with a lot of history, sadly concrete shopping centres have swamped the medieval magic, and only a few Tudor buildings are still standing. Not all the modern buildings lacked character, we chanced upon the Methodist church which had been built gratis by the company erecting the shopping centre on the site of its old buildings. It had stunning stained glass which was only apparent from the inside.

We took a guided tour of the NT Greyfriers Merchants house and heard how it was only saved from decaying and demolition in the 50‘s by the Matley-Moores, an eccentric brother and sister. They bought other Tudor houses in the street to stop them being swallowed up by ‘progress’. One now contains the Hand Made Scotch Egg shop, also worth visiting.

The cathedral is awesome in its grandeur that towers over the city, and I visited it several times to absorb the atmosphere and enjoy the music from both choristers and organ. I can’t even begin to imagine how such buildings were conceived and built without the technology that we have now. I guess they didn’t have health and safety regulations to comply with….

Worcester’s claim to fame, besides being the home of Lea and Perrins sauce,  was that it was the royalist headquarters during the English civil war, which had its last battle here on 3rd September 1651. We were moored outside the ‘commandery’ protected by pikes and amoury.

We saw and did an awful lot more than I have written about and I am sure we will return to this fascinating city. But it was time to move on, on our Great River adventure.