2020, not all bad, part 2

24th June we were finally free to leave Liverpool. Yes we had mixed feelings leaving our sanctuary, but ironically as lockdown eased and people emerged, it didn’t feel as safe, as if the sense of relief at being allowed out had also released all common sense that the virus was still lurking and social distancing was still vitally important. Our little convoy set off up the Leeds and Liverpool canal gradually saying our farewells as we settled into our cruising routine. Our plan was to head onto the Bridgewater canal then head for Cheshire, the Shroppie and the Llangollen, before heading back East into Leicestershire to fulfil a booking made in the summer of 2019, to have the hull blacked at Debdale.
But where do you begin to express the joy of being back out on the cut, we hadn’t seen herons or ducks for 8 months and I’ll never tire of stone bridges or canal side cottages, and wild flowers as CRT pays good money to remind us yes we enjoy our canals.

Canal life at its best

Whilst we were still in the Northwest our outdoors lifestyle meant we were able to catch up with friends and family that we had missed during Lockdown

Family and friends enjoying an opportunity to be together

When we reached Wigan we turned right onto the Leigh Branch, the first of many firsts for us in. Although it’s essentially a transit arm linking the L&L to the Bridgewater, I can see us making detours down here to enjoy the peaceful open mooring after the mills and backwaters around Wigan.

Leigh Branch

And then onto the Bridgewater,

Worsley on the Bridgewater

July became the month of bridges, possibly the most spectacular, at least from an engineers point of view, was crossing the Barton Swing Aqueduct over the Manchester ship canal.

Crossing the Barton Swing Aqueduct

We didn’t linger around Manchester but continued towards Stockton Heath, and Preston Brook, which is where we discovered Eric’s lineage, Willie actually worked as a canal porter on the wharfs at Preston Brook.

Family history

We would have liked longer on the Bridgewater, but unlike the majority of the canals, it’s in private ownership and only permits one weeks free passage per month, so we continued south on the Trent and Mersey, heading for the Shroppie. But who could resist a minor detour onto the Anderton boat lift for a few days on the River Weaver. Not us. Each time we use these awesome feats of victorian engineering we think how lucky we are to be able to enjoy them, fearing of course that one day the funding for their maintenance will run out, or health and safety will dictate their closures.

Anderton Boat Lift

What we hadn’t anticipated that after just 5 weeks of cruising, it wasn’t the old structures that failed, but Firecrest who suffered a catostophic breakdown. The long and the short of of it was a manufacturing fault in our generator that required a complicated repair. This was the low point of our year, so I won’t dwell on the why’s and wherefores, but the “not all bad bit” was that we broke down very close to Northwich Quay Marina, and Heather the manager, went out of her way to make sure we were safe during a frustrating repair that took nearly 7 weeks

Northwich Quay Marina, Our safe haven for August

It was now mid September and we knew in order to avoid being on the wrong side of the planned canal maintenance closures, we had to reach Foxton by 1st November, plus we had booked a weeks family holiday in October. That was 144 miles and 88 locks, doable in a fortnight of full days and fair weather, but we don’t enjoy cruising at speed, even if it is only 4 miles an hour. So we abandoned our plans for the Shroppie and set off aiming to do 4 hours a day, vowing to come back and revisit the places we had missed. Heartbreak Hill, with 31 locks in 12 miles certainly got the muscles aching, but we had good weather and enough oncoming boats to make it an enjoyable challenge,

Lock 58, Heartbreak Hill on T&M

And we even got to see the skeleton in the Harecastle tunnel

The Harecastle skeleton

We met up with Jo at Great Haywood

Misty morning great Haywood junction

Turned right at Fradley

Fradley Junction

Avoided the storms around Braunston

Cruising south towards Braunston

Socially distanced the locks at Watford

Watford locks

Didn’t quite get all the family together in the Lakes due to travel restrictions.

Flocking to the Lakes to see family

But we made it into Leicestershire in time for second lockdown in Market Harborough. The highlight being moored opposite the kingfishers favourite perch

Market Harborough’s finest kingfisher

And finally got the blacking done at Debdale

Now that’s good looking bottom

What a year 2020 was. The highs were definitely the friendships made during hard times, the lows were loosing 2 friends. But it wasn’t all bad.

2020, not all bad part 1

Unlike most, we started 2020 already locked down. CRT was running maintenance on the first few sections of the L&L canal, so we knew when we took our winter mooring in Liverpool’s Salthouse Dock, we were staying put until end of March….

There’s always light in Liverpool

12 months later I am still raving about what an amazing mooring that was, right in the heart of the historic waterfront overlooked by the Royal Albert Dock and three Graces.

Iconic historic Liverpool

Liverpool is a vibrant city, packed full of life, culture, history, the Beatles, music. And we set about to make the most of it. But despite the fun we were having attending concerts, dining out around the world, spending time with my cousin’s who live here, most evenings I would take a 5 minute stroll and take in the sunset over the Mersey.

My evening stroll

We were so lucky that lockdown 1 started in the spring, we were blessed with a sunny April so despite missing out on some perfect cruising weather, we basked in the sunshine. And the half a dozen boats formed our own little bubble, keeping each other company across the pontoons. We all kept well. I re-joined the nursing register and volunteered to work, but despite struggling through mountains of illogical paperwork thankfully wasn’t called upon.

Our safe sanctuary last spring

We filled our days on walking tours, picnics and botany, Angie and became adept at spotting which park had the nicest flower beds

Life on the dock

In fact when the locks were unlocked in June, we were almost sad to say goodbye to our home. There were so many special things about our stay in Liverpool that it is impossible to condense into a short post. If you want the full trip down memory lane June 20 archive pages

Our first 2020 night on the canal 24th June


For us lockdown in Liverpool meant friendships formed.

Welcome 2021

January is a time to look around and take stock, a bit of reminiscing doesn’t do any harm, but our adventurous spirit is itching to move on. Alas for now we are following CRT guidlines to once again, “limit our navigation to access essential facilities and services only”
It’s a bit of a dichotomy for us. We are happy with our own company, we don’t yearn to be part of a large group, in fact the thought of noisy gatherings and parties intimidate and exhausts us. We are self sufficient and invigorated by our boat life. Yet what makes boat life so enjoyable is the interaction we have with the people around us. We never tire of the same old questions, Is it cold in winter, – only outside the boat, can you stand up inside-yes, etc, but equally so we are interested in the Towpath trawlers. It can be as little as a cheery wave hello, to taking the time to hear the highs and lows. People are what make a community, people are precious and people are the reason we will strive to do what is asked of us to help bring this pandemic under control.
I’ve said before I find these restrictions hard, I cope by shutting myself away, but I awoke on Friday morning, the 1st day of 2021, feeling upbeat and positive. There might not be many photos over the next few weeks, cold grey mud doesn’t inspire me, so why would I capture it on camera. So I’ll use this time to look back at the 10s of thousands of photos I have already taken since we moved aboard and perhaps share a few of my favourites.
I just hope Eric doesn’t expect every day in 2021 to start with a boaters breakfast.

That looks good

Second Christmas

If the hobbits can have second breakfast we can have second Christmas. This time we were celebrating on board Firecrest on 25th December. Sadly it is the first time I can remember that we haven’t been able to go to church, but that wasn’t going to dampen our spirits, we knew who’s name we’d be singing a happy birthday to as we washed our hands that day.

I’d decorated the corner of the saloon with a miniature Christmas tree, that had been delivered by post complete with lights and decorations (thankyou Carole) and added the gifts we had been given last week. Everything looked perfect.

Firecrest’s Christmas corner

I won’t go into all our little traditions but as you can see we had a good time.

Goodness knows where we’ll put it all

Lunch was a prepped turkey roast intended for four, but hey we need leftovers to last the week.

Turkey roast from our favourite Suffolk butcher

But the effort was worth it.

Mmm not sure the cook is supposed to wash up as well

More presents in the afternoon, usually Eric gives me a jigsaw.

Easily pleased, he’s already drunk the whisky

but I turned tables this year and had this one printed from what we consider to be our best photo of the year. There is a confident kingfisher, who’s territory is the Market Harborough Union Wharf. And his favourite perch – no pun intended, just happened to be right opposite where we were moored. We saw him so often we became rather blasè about “our” kingfisher. Eric was able to snap away with his digital SLR most days.

What a poser

Try as we might, didn’t quite capture the moment he dived for his dinner, even though we saw it happen several times.

Preened and proud

So as we wrap up our Christmas cheer, I want to say thankyou to all our friends and family who found a way to send cards, gifts and good cheer. Thankyou, we love and appreciate you all. And to our friends and family who have not been able to celebrate this Christmas, particularly the families of Connell, Chris and Angie you are in our hearts and prayers.

Black is beautiful-and so is our bottom

The reason for our season here was to have our hull re blacked at Debdale Wharf Marina
Typically narrowboats are taken out of the water every few years to re paint the hull which protects the metal. Depending upon what sort of finish you want/can afford etc determines your choices. Traditionally the original wooden working boats would have been hand painted with bitumen tar to seal any gaps and preserve the wood. It’s still used today, but bitjmen is a soft finish and prone to being scraped off, plus, metal isn’t absorbent like wood. Nowadays a two-pack epoxy resin paint is much more hard wearing and longer lasting. Although it’s still feasible to do this yourself, our lifestyle and skills meant we chose to hand Firecrest over to the professionals. We opted to go the whole hog and have the hull grit blasted, zinc plated and then two-packed. Not the cheapest option, but it’s guaranteed for 10 years so in theory we don’t need to have the boat out of the water again before 2030. Though in reality we probably will, just to pressure wash the hull and check it’s all ok but we can do this ourselves, so the sums arent quite so negative in the long term.
If you open this link to Debdale wharf, there is a video showing what they do.
The whole process was relatively easy. The hardest bit was tidying up inside and moving “stuff” off all the work surfaces so nothing would slide off during the crane out.

Hmmm Is that really Firecrest

With everything shipshape and secure on the Monday morning we apprehensively, handed over the keys, waved goodbye to Firecrest got into our hire car to drive to Heather’s for the week.

Just testing the crane will lift 18 tonne of boat

However the most traumatic bit of the day was during the drive home. We were hit by a piece of debris falling off an oncoming lorry. It smashed into the wing mirror and destroyed it. We’re still thanking God that it didn’t hit the windscreen otherwise it could have been really nasty. Thank goodness for car insurance, the bill came to just under £700.

That was a close call

We managed to sneak in this trip to Heathers legitimately, on account of being made homeless for the week, but we were well aware that restrictions could be tightened at any point so whilst we consciously kept a low profile and didn’t do the usual round of visiting friends we did celebrate “first Christmas” (Second Christmas will be just the two of us and third Christmas will be when we finally get to see our son again.)

First Christmas

The seven days flew by but it was exciting to get back to admire our bottom. We arrived in good time to see the whole process of Firecrest leaving the shed and being craned back into the water.

Emerging from the warm shed

It’s obviously a well oiled machine, the team worked as one, efficiently and confidently, whilst able to chat to us about what was going on.

Attaching the front fender

I really didn’t need to have worried about the boat swaying. Debdale have a gantry crane with a double webbed cradle that is remarkably stable.

If he’s brave enough to stand there, the crane must be strong enough

But it was still a huge relief when we were finally back in the water.

Floating again

Debdale provide their customers with photos of the weeks work and whilst I wouldn’t usually share photos of us with no clothes on, this shows Firecrest‘s hull just after pressure washing. The white scratch marks on the base plate show the damage done from scraping along debris thrown into canals. We think they are white because of the electrolysis effect from the anodes whilst we were moored in Liverpool’s briney basin. You can also see how much original paint has flaked off leaving the steel vulnerable to rusting, which only served to confirm the need to have a hull re blacked.

After pressure washing

You can see the difference before and after the grit blasting . The surface is now perfectly prepared for the zinc to adhere.

Before and after grit blasting

The molten zinc is sprayed on straight after the grit blasting has been done to prevent any oxidisation. You can see the image of the stern showing the hull zinced but the gunwale above the rubbing straight is just grit blasted ready to receive the two-pack with its cream flashes. And finally the hull is fully clothed in nice shiny black two-pack

Zinc and blacking

What you can’t see from any of the photos is that the gunwale is now in need of painting so it matches the hull. It’s a quick and easy job, something we usually do once or twice a year just to keep it looking pretty. But for now we are back out on the cut, with a huge sense of relief that we don’t have any deadlines or obligations in the foreseeable future. And apart from that pesky little bug doing the rounds, we are free to “fly” again.

Moored just beyond Debdale

Meandering around Market Harborough

We weren’t able to do exactly what we had planned during our stay in Market Harborough but being given permission to stay for the full 4 weeks of lockdown gave us plenty of time to explore. We moored just outside the entrance to the Union Wharf basin. We had a water point next to the boat, there are at least 5 along this stretch of mooring. And the other essential services were a few minutes walk in the basin.

Looking towards the end of the line, At Union Wharf

Being November, we had to snatch our opportunities as the weather was miserable a lot of the time. The Towpath had nearly as much water as the canal.

It’s about a mile’s walk into the town center, past some lovely Georgian buildings

Walking into Harborough

And a fantastic Victorian fishmonger, open right onto the pavement. complete with marble slabs and hand made tiles, where I got the freshest of mackerel. It’s a pity there were so many customers to have taken a photo of the whole place, but I’m very glad to see it thriving.

The Old Grammer School in the centre is unusual, it is built on stilts because Market Harborough had a reputation for flooding. It was also the head quarters for the royalist’s cavalry during the first English civil war. Nowadays, it is an open hall for hire.

The old grammar school

Thanks to lockdown, we took the opportunity to walk further out of town. Gt Bowden is a quintessentially perfect English village, we could imagine the roaring fire in the pub whilst we strolled around. Instead we enjoyed the outside, and you will have to take my word for it that the Florentine Millionaires shortbread, from Weltons deli really did taste a million dollars.

Looking towards Great Bowden Church

Mind you it wasn’t always us doing the looking, we got the distinct impression we were being watched as we walked to the Farndon Fields farm shop.

That’s a well fed bunny

Time to Reflect

I don’t cope very well when my world is restricted, or rather I cope by closing in on myself. Eric and I are very content living on Firecrest, yet while I’m quite content with my own company, and love interacting with just one or two people, I struggle with crowds. Hence my lack of posting over the past month. I haven’t lost my “happy space” it’s just become a lot lot smaller, and I find it harder to share.

We spent November moored just outside Union Wharf in Market Harborough.

Union Wharf Arm, Market Harborough

When the government told us to stay home and CRT told us we could only cruise for essential services, we had to debate going for rural and enjoying the permitted cruising to keep the tanks appropriately occupied, or to opt for the convenience of civilisation, with a water point and services all on hand. Having been spoilt during first lockdown in Liverpool with everything available, we hoped for more of the same.

Gallows Hill, Gt Bowden

Market Harborough is a superb little market town, it’s somewhere I could imagine living. Besides it having a canal, it’s got lots of independent shops, selling locally made produce. 18 months ago, when we booked the boat in for blacking at Debdale we were positively looking forward to spending the exciting run up to Christmas here, with fairs and concerts to enjoy and happy people all enjoying the hubbub of life. Alas non of that was to be. And I just felt overwhelmingly sad. Our own suffering has been limited to inconvenient restrictions, but for so many, worlds have been ripped apart physically emotionally and financially. And sadly, unlike some, I don’t have a magic wand.

Flying high over Market Harborough

We made the most of our time, and got out walking. This part of Leicestershire might not boast the most dramatic scenery but it’s awesome to stand at the top of a hill and look across the fields for miles.

Looking down towards the village of Gt Bowden

And as always we remain hopeful.

Locking down, from the top to the bottom of Foxton locks

A good start to the day

Waking up to a cerise sky through the porthole ought to be a warning to any good shepherds, but we took advantage as it turned blue to go down the flight at Foxton. 11 locks, in 2 staircases and several helpful volockies to make sure we did it all in the right order.
We sailed past the horse and his boy

The Foxton horse and boy

and straight into the top lock

Top lock

The volockies were happy to recruit some younger helpers, so this family took great pleasure in opening and closing the opposite gate for me. (We came down before the current lockdown 2, so we only had to adhere to proper social distancing)

Volockies of the future

And once at the bottom we took advantage of the water point, looking wistfully over to our favourite pub on the canal network. Bridge 61.

45 minutes to complete the flight, 1 hour 45 to fill with water

We have very fond memories of becoming an accepted part of the Foxton community when we spent the 18/19 winter season around here. Those memories were one of the main reason, we opted to book our hull blacking at Debdale during the winter months. Then we enjoyed homemade soup, pies and pints and a roaring log fire in the tiny room.

Happy memories from winter 2018

This year, we could have sat outside with our pints and takeout, but it doesnt hold the same appeal. We will still pop into the shop regularly, especially as we can order fresh food, and as one wise person reminded me, we shouldn’t be panic buying toilet rolls, but panic buying as often as possible from our precious little independent shops like this, because these are the heart of small community.

Not quite what we had in mind, but nice to see a good custom

I was doing some reading about the history of Foxton Locks and found this amusing list of items that they found when the flight was drained in 2018 for maintenance.

3 iPhones, a digital camera, a dinner plate, a laptop, a vintage boat hook, a paddle rack and paddle plate, a debit card, a car battery, some solar lights, a pair of child’s sunglasses, a pair of sunglasses, a thermos mug, 3 mugs, a spirit level, a tape measure, a chimney cap, 4 lamp irons, a pie of spare piling, a water valve, a washing machine cold water pipe, an A board from the museum, 3 Walsh aluminium windlasses, a steel windlass, the missing gate cap off number 12’s bottom gate, 5 pint glasses, a blanket, a vent from the door of a boat, a shield from the bottom of our fence posts, an umbrella, the missing brick from the end of the waterfall weir, 2 dollars 50 cents in Canadian money, 12 pence in UK sterling, a stapler, a 1960s Coca Cola bottle, 4 beer bottles, a child’s scooter, an anode, 2 navigation lights, the missing aluminium extension to the drag, 4 golf balls, a paint tin…
… and 84 fenders!!

Golden days

The stretch of canal between Husbands Bosworth and Foxton is a favourite of ours. I think it’s the hills on one side,

bridge 51, Laughton

and the vistas on the other.

Looking towards Lubenham

But in October it’s the golden trees glowing, that adds an extra joy to cruising in the autumn.

Somewhere around Lubenham

We love being rural, but it takes some planning to make sure we don’t run out of fresh food. There isn’t a supermarket on every street corner and sadly you can’t rely upon there being a village store anymore. But today, Google maps had revealed a potential opportunity in Husbands Bosworth. And having checked the tortuous route of the canal we reckoned I could walk the 2 miles inland and do the shopping by the time Eric had cruised the 3 miles to the next easy access.

A4304 to Husbands Bosworth

And we’d got our timing right. I arrived back on the Towpath just in time to see Eric and Firecrest emerge from the Bosworth Tunnel

North portal of husbands Bosworth tunnel

Fully stocked up again we were able to enjoy a few days quiet mooring

In the middle of nowhere

With some profitable walks, as we found several generous apple trees with enough windfalls to gather

I see Apple pie

So I made pie for tea

Pie day

And again it would be quicker to walk, 3 miles to Market Harborough or 8 via canal

Looking towards Leicestershire

Locking Up

Now we are on the Leicester line of the Grand Union canal, or the Grand Junction carrying company, as it used to be known. we have almost reached our destination.

We are only planning 24 miles

We are booked to have the hull blacked at Debdale over the winter. And as luck would have it there are planned winter stoppages around Husbands Bosworth, which means we can’t hang around in case we got caught on the wrong side. No stormy clouds to start the day.

Looking northwards from the wooden bridge at Norton Junction, firecrest is third on the right

We pushed on and the day’s journey took us past the Watford Gap service station on the M1. And each time we wonder if those hurtling up and down the country have any idea that life in the slow lane is a mere stones throw over the barrier. Despite our gratitude to the haulage companies responsible for keeping the shelves stocked, we’re in no hurry to swap our 200 year old super highway for the modern version.

There’s a four lane motorway behind that hedge

We got to Watford flight nice and early before pening time at 10am, to be greeted by the volockies, “oh we’ve been here since 8, we always are.” Consequently instead of mooring up and enjoying a boaters breakfast, we set off up the flight straight away.

Half way up

It’s a very pretty flight of 7 locks, 5 being a staircase, which means extra care and attention is needed to manage the water flow. Instead of the water being directed into and out of the pond inbetween locks, there are side ponds.

Water whooshing into the side pond

It’s all very logical but countless people get confused and end up with no water in the lock they are aiming for or flooding the boat below, hence the reason no one is allowed to use them without a lock keeper. And to be honest i struggle to articulate how it all works, but I do know the correct sequence to get it right.
But it’s a pleasant flight and takes just over 30 minutes to reach the pond before the final lock.

Almost there

Then only a short hop to the Crick tunnel

The southern portal

but enough time for us to enjoy a Braunston Bacon Buttie.

You can’t beat a bacon buttie when you’re cruising

And onto some lovely rural countryside.

Just another lovely bridge

We decided not to stop in Crick this time, but pushed on to Yelvetoft, where the welcoming committee came to check us out.

Swanning around