As Rosie has the equivalent of a hip replacement (a bit of body work) and cosies up for the winter, we head off to Northamptonshire with our friends for a week on a 66 foot barge. No problem I do camping; can’t be much different on a boat.
Our barge is the Rufus Castle and sleeps six. We pick her up from Gayton Marina and begin our journey along the Grand Union Canal, heading for Nether Heyford, our first mooring. For half the week there are five of us, with the Tiller Girl with us on the first day and then joining us mid-week. The captain is a seasoned barger and known to us as Unc but on this trip as Chief Engineer which means he puts the engine on every morning, gleans his ‘gland’, clears the weed hatch and puts on the central heating so the rest of us don’t get cold and can use the hairdryer. It’s civilised barging.
The First Mate also known as Gate Crasher, is a seasoned sailor (ooh-aargh) usually sailing the high seas off the south coast, looking for treasure …..or rather a pint of good beer at each watering hole. We all help out in that endeavour this week and the girls make a good start!
Dubber has swapped his campervanning for his first steer on a barge as Cabin Boy. As I found out too a barge takes longer to respond than shorter boats and there were a few connections with bridges and canal banks along the way.
The route we take along the canal is beautiful. The Autumn light is stunning on these unusually warm October days and the water as calm as a mill pond. The reflections of the beautifully painted boats and the trees full of berries is glorious.
There’s plenty of wildlife too with moorhens, ducks, herons, a kingfisher or two and Auntie, also a seasoned barger, is the Duck Spotter feeding this family of swans with its large brood of five signets.
When we moor at Nether Heyford we enjoy our first evening with beef casserole and the first of many crumbles. It’s a beautiful evening and we venture to the Olde Sun Inn with its friendly locals and excellent beer. Then back to the barge for the first round in the Skipbo tournament. Yes we brought it along with us from the campervan.
I’m responsible for writing the ship’s log so:
Day 1: 2 hours, six miles, no locks, Skipbo to Duck Spotter.
Day two finds us on our way at just after 9 with a bacon sarnie and a glorious sunny morning. Quite early on we have seven locks and so us novices get instructions from Duck Spotter, who is very good at it. It’s harder work than you think with your windlass in your hand coiling up the paddles and then opening heavy lock gates.
At Busby Top we went to the New Inn for a swift one before lunch on the boat before we travelled through a mile and a quarter of darkness in the Braunston Tunnel. It’s really eerie travelling along with just a light shining in the front through pitch black, then seeing a light coming towards you as another boat squeezes by. After another six locks we moor at Braunston to go for an evening stroll to the Wheatsheaf and then the Olde Plough for dinner.
Day 2: 7 hours, 11 miles, 13 locks, Skipbo to Duck Spotter again….
Another glorious day as we take the junction onto the Oxford Canal heading through 9 locks to Napton-on-the-hill and brunch served at two in the afternoon. Duck Spotter and I (General Dogsbody) gather blackberries for another crumble. The canal banks are abundant with hawthorn, sloes, rose hips, crab apples and blackberries. The trees look like they are already celebrating Christmas with all their gaiety.
We moor up at Fenny Compton enjoying a drink at the lovely Wharf Inn before home baked bread and casserole warming us from the chilly wind. Two good games of Skipbo; they are getting the gist of it now and then it’s off to bed…hold on who nearly fell in? Now known as the First Mate’s arm incident.
Day 3: 8.5 hours, 14 miles, 9 locks, Skipbo – one to the First Mate and one to me.
Today our final destination is Cropredy so that the Tiller Girl can join us. Early driving was through a beautiful narrow canal.
Until now locks had been double locks in which two boats can travel. Now they are single locks and generally but not always easier to deal with. It’s international day today as we meet Australians and Germans. Besides meeting people the best thing about dealing with locks is having a lovely walk along the towpaths. It’s so peaceful.
And I managed a bit of driving too.
At Cropredy we shop for provisions and have a walk around this lovely village, Dubber’s choice because of its Fairport Convention connection. We also turn round here before heading to The Brasenose pub for dinner and the Tiller Girl joins us.
Day 4: 5 hours, 7 miles, 9 locks, no Skipbo today.
We make a leisurely start after coffee in bed, breakfast and straight back into the locks. They seem heavier today. We all have aching muscles. Some of the lock pools are really low so we have to be careful not to beach the boat. The day is spent meandering back up the beautiful canal to Fenny Compton where we fill up with water again and we have a drink too.
We find a quiet spot to moor away from anyone else and have a splendid meal cooked by the captain with a crumble using the blackberries we picked. We were presented with an awesome sunset.
Day 5: 7.5 hours, 12 miles, 9 locks, and Chief Engineer wins two games of Skipbo.
We’re setting off early…..we didn’t! It was a short journey before we had 9 locks and it got busier and busier as we approached Napton again. This time we waited to get into The Folly Inn the landlord of which had the same surname as our First Mate. This led to some witty chat about family likenesses and sharing of family details. The food was amazing. We even managed a crew photo!
We are nearing the final stretch so we need to eat up the leftovers so it’s a tea of this and that after a couple of drinks back at The Olde Plough for early doors. Although somebody snuck in a bag of chips before we got back to the boat.
Day 6: 6.5 hours, 11 miles, 9 locks and Tiller Girl won a game of Skipbo. So it’s just Dubber who hasn’t won yet. He’s bound to start moaning.
We have really got to get a move on today because we have to be about an hour away from Gayton marina tonight. So we are straight to it this morning and we did 13 locks and a tunnel with brunch in between. It sounds as if we are rushing but you really can’t do this on a barge at 3mph.
Alongside locks there are often interesting houses or old lock keeper cottages that are now either pubs or a canal shop. There are often lovely gardens and long stay canal boats of people who live and work on the canals.
We moor at Bugbrooke and take a walk through yet another lovely village. A pint at the Five Bells before having a meal at The Wharf Inn. We make full use of the toilets there as ours are getting full on board and we don’t want to send out for an emergency pump out. Cross your legs. No you can’t have another gin. Oh alright then. Just the one. We play a final game of Skipbo and yay Dubber wins.
Day 7: 7 hours, 12 miles, 13 locks, one tunnel and joint winners at Skipbo Duck Spotter and the Chief Engineer.
The final morning we are away by 8am and travel back in sunshine to the marina. By the time we arrive we have done 46 hours, 75 miles, 62 locks, and 8 games of Skipbo. We have travelled through beautiful countryside, met lots of lovely people, eaten and drunk extremely well, walked miles, strengthened our core muscles with all that windlassing and pushing and pulling lock gates and been blessed with beautiful October sunshine with the best of friends.
And what did we learn?
Double locks are harder than single locks.
A pint of beer at lunchtime makes afternoon lock opening easier.
You meet lots of lovely people when you’re messing about in boats.
Dubber is still happier when he’s won a game of Skipbo.