Before I begin, I just want to say ‘Pah!’ to those wretched blog rolls that remind me every time I look at them how remiss I have been in posting. Lower and lower I fall, and longer and longer the time since my last post gets. Accusatory and reproachful, that’s what they are. Gets results though, as I’ve actually written something.
There are quite a few times in life when a couple of extra inches is all you need…well, I don’t know where your mind went but mine went to being able to successfully retrieve that very last packet of Marmite crisps lurking right at the back of the top shelf. Or keeping your nose above the foetid miasma of a greyhound collective hell bent on sensory annihilation. Or when all that stands between you and gastronomic satisfaction is five centimetres of luscious French garlic sausage. Or, as in this case, when there’s a bit more water in a canal.
When blogging about our trip up to Brum at Easter, I think I chronicled my ‘never been in love with it, not seen nothin’ to change my opinion’ experience of the North Stratford. Various things conspired to ensure that I remained singularly unenamoured of the stretch from Lapworth to King’s Norton, but the most persistently grievous of these was the distinct lack of depth. Levels were definitely down, I was assured by the locals, but funnily enough this was no real consolation as I dragged our recalcitrant big arse through the mud. When we finally turned onto the Worcester & Birmingham what felt like about eight weeks later, I made a quiet promise to myself that we would eventually return Warwick-wards via the GU.
A few weeks later, the morning after the BCN Challenge before, and on the point of departure to Warwick and beyond, I was in two minds as to whether to honour that promise or give the Stratford another go. Break the former and we would have a light locking day, which I thought might lessen the pain for the first mate who was facing another 50 locks in two days. Stick with it and he might jump ship half way down Ashted and head to New Street for a train home. While I was weighing up the odds, it started to rain, which obviously saw the scales crash down on the side of Stratford – I may be a bossy captain but I’m not a martinet and seeing as the idiot child had lost the brolly on Saturday, I was resigned to getting wet. No need for him to get soaked too. You see, I’m all heart.
So a day of cruising in the rain lay ahead, with just a quick flit down the Crow and the Smethwick three before we got out on the (hurrah, now well up) level and the first mate disappeared to cosy up to his iPad. With so many Challengers needing to reposition, we weren’t alone in our travels and we soon got into a little flotilla with Red Wharf and Tawny Owl, plugging on and on and eventually passing a few other competitors who had had the good sense to moor up. A small amount of drama at Brandwood Tunnel. I was tail end Charlie and had wound it on a bit in a pathetic attempt to keep up with Tawny and its six inch draft (well, I think it’s about 18 inches but she skims along like it’s 6) and as I belted around the corner I saw Tawny reversing out of the tunnel. Cue a hard astern and an ungainly slewing across the canal and then the textbook look of raised eyebrow puzzlement you give fellow boaters when seeking an explanation. Apparently there were two boats coming through the tunnel and they had started shrieking and shouting hysterically when they’d clocked Tawny’s headlight. Not being sure exactly what was going on, Tawny did the sensible ‘discretion is the better part of valour’ thing and did a cautionary reverse, despite Brandwood being two-way working. Anyway, eventually two hire boats popped out the western portal with big apologies; we assume they had just got a bit confused as to whether two boats could actually pass and after assuring them they could, we all went on our way, with us back to eating Tawny’s (diesel) dust.
I think it had actually stopped raining by the time we caught up with the now moored Tawny Owl and Red Wharf across from the Blue Bell Cider House, and we were just about to leapfrog them in a bid to be in pole position for the Lapworth dash in the morn, when we were flagged down by Mrs Tawny Owl, the lovely Sue. Worried that something was amiss, I duly slowed down, but all was well, it was just that our services were needed for carrying. Well, who’d have thunk it, an ex-working boat needed for carrying? It appeared that some of Tawny’s crew and kit needed a lift from the boat to the bridge hole and waiting car, but a very rutted, swimming pool-esque towpath was making a swift, tidy leave rather difficult. So we levied a toll of two flapjacks for the use of our tug deck and then the stevedores set to in loading us up and forcing the plimsoll line under, begging the question just how much gear does anyone need for a long week in Birmingham? We were still afloat, just, and got the fifty yards to the bridge, with the bonus of having Mr Tawny Owl and marine engineer par excellence, the equally lovely Richard, travel with me on the stern where he noted that my gearbox sounded like every other PRM he knew, including his own, and I shouldn’t worry about the fact that it sounds like it’s knackered because actually it’s perfectly fine. It was welcome reassurance after 18 months of wondering…
A prompt start the next morning saw us down Lapworth early doors, despite the first lift bridge of the day playing hard to get. There I was, pootling onwards to the airgap that was sure to emerge as Andy wound and wound, and suddenly I noticed that the bridge deck wasn’t actually getting any higher. In fact, I was heading for a complete pinball ‘strike’ – stack, chimney, and cans – so promptly reversed (good job I’d practiced yesterday!), tied up, hopped off and went to see what was amiss. Well, there was a sweary first mate for a start, and an unwilling hydraulic unit to follow. He was all for calling out CRT but I was all kick-ass so I made him hang on the beam while I shoved the deck from underneath, and then he wound again, gaining us another couple of inches (see, there they are again). We repeated this a few times until I reckoned we had enough clearance and slowly, carefully slunk our way through. It wound down fine and I did wonder later whether if we’d wound it down and tried again it would have just come up without a problem – but at the time, there was a bit of a ‘bird in the hand’ thing going on as we were very close, so we didn’t risk it. I did call it in though.
Thankfully this was the only issue of the day. Lapworth was knocked off quickly, despite the first mate having a complete sense of humour failure about three locks from the bottom, the reason why eludes me. But if anyone saw a grown bloke having a sulky hissy fit near Kingswood on the Tuesday, apologies. A good chug along the embankment in the sunshine towards Hatton seemed to restore crew equilibrium, and lots of helpful, interested gongoozlers made the passage down very pleasant indeed. Curious how everyone here is very engaged by the flight here whereas at Lapworth at Easter, when we came up on a busy Sunday, people couldn’t have been less interested in us or the environs. Maybe it’s just the size and scale that gets people excited…We met a fair few boats coming up, mostly hirers and all with large enthusiastic crews which was a bonus. The first mate was slightly taken aback by one set though, travelling under a Swedish flag; when politely pointing out that they would have better luck winding the paddle up if they removed the ‘C’ clamp from the spindle first, he got a very Elle Sommer ‘Ve know what we are doink’ rebuttal for his troubles. Obviously you do, love, pardon us for trying to help. It wasn’t nasty or anything but little episodes like this do bug the first mate quite a lot. I know this because he was still banging on about it a week later and as soon as we’re back on the Ham Baker gear I swear he’s going to bring it up again. Mind you, I will also restart my mithering about those bloody chains in the GU locks all the way back to Wigrams. I so want to cut them off…