Nonetheless, it was with some excitement that I hatched a plan for a proper solo journey, back at the end of the summer trip. As we shared locks with Renfrew, I was suddenly inspired to ask Pete if he would make me a new steering step. When I got Chertsey, it had a nice solid wood step in, I think, elm, which extended as a shelf behind the stove. However, in the process of fitting the new Epping it was - ahem - damaged/adapted, and I was never happy with it after, so for the past five or six years I have been making do with a piece of rough wood with some lino stuck on the top. Then it occurred to me that I could get Pete to refit the table cupboard too, ooh, and maybe a new lower step (I don't have a coal box, just a plank between two brackets, which works well for me).
Pete made and fitted Chertsey's new front cant and breastpiece, gunnels, handrails and back end beam, top planks and cloths, and I have been extremely impressed with his work so once I'd had the idea there was no hesitating. I knew that if I was ever to start single-handing, there would be no better journey to begin with than Alvecote to Braunston: a familiar run, fourteen nice easy locks (yes, plus the stoplock) and all uphill, so I determined there and then to do it. This was back in early August, and the end of October, when Pete could fit it in, seemed an awfully long time away, and my biggest concern was that the weather would be cold and wet and, worst of all, windy. My second biggest concern was whether the engine would start for me, especially if it was cold.
I set off to Alvecote on Friday, arriving around lunchtime. First I lit the stove, then I set about clearing out the back cabin, taking down all the plates, lace, curtains and other fripperies, because at some point soon we are going to properly, finally, paint the back cabin. I also - after some thought - took down the cat containment partition. I was in two minds beforehand as it made a handy bulkhead for hanging things on, and having the bed enclosed was quite nice, but it did make it difficult to impossible to slide around the table cupboard when it was open. Having taken it out I was pleased with the more open look.
On Saturday morning I got of to a slowish start, finally leaving at ten. I needn't have worried about the engine - I talked sweetly to it, attended to all its little needs, and it started FIRST TIME which hardly ever happens. The trouble is that having repeated this feat three times now, I will always have to talk to the engine before starting it (and thanking it afterwards, of course). I backed all the way across the marina (I had backed in following a brief trip the other week with some work friends, but ended up turning round and eventually going in front first after all) then headed out onto the Coventry Canal. I might as well say at this point (non-spoiler alert) that there were no disasters whatsoever on this trip. The weather was damp and mild and there was hardly anyone else around; conditions were pretty much perfect. Every time I went under a tree, the exhaust dislodged great clouds of leaves like confetti. The boat was soon covered with them. I made myself some sandwiches before I set off; I had the kettle within reach on the stove and teabags and milk to hand. It all felt pretty idyllic - I could not have imagined that even better was yet to come - but that's for another day.
It was about lunchtime when I arrived at the bottom of Atherstone locks (foolishly, I have left the comprehensive log on the boat). Of the fifteen locks on the trip, all but two were against me - one in the middle of Atherstone, where I met a single hander coming the other way, and one at Hillmorton. But it was no extra trouble really. Everyone has their own technique for single handing locks, although with a big Woolwich you don't get many options. What I did was to go in slowly and out of gear and step off as I passed the appropriate point, taking the back end line with me. The rope is primarily because of the times the boat starts to drift back out of the lock, usually once I've got one of the gates shut. But having taken it I also used it to strap the boat in, meaning no bumps! The Atherstone locks are lovely and gentle, no banging about even when you open the paddles all at once, so that's what I did. The other thing to look out for here is the front fender going under the handrail, which it will do on nearly all of these locks, so I always stood by holding the fore end rope to hold it away. At Hillmorton, I noticed, the opposite happened and the boat drifted to the back of the locks as they filled. Where the locks are close enough together I'd open the top gate, then go and get the next one ready, then come back and shut it once in the next one up. I also had some success stopping with the stern end in the mouth of the lock and using the stern end line to make sure it didnt run away while I shut the gate. Which I was very good about doing. So, I did eight locks on my own in this fashion, and then noticed that someone had caught up with me. But they had a boatload of Boy Scouts behind them, so they commandeered a couple to come and help me. This was actually quite welcome as the top two locks have quite a gap to step across to get off at the bottom. I was also able to practice being pleasant to people, and I gave them a big bag of popcorn which we'd bought in the summer and never quite felt like eating. In all it took me three hours and twenty minutes to do the Atherstone locks - probably about twice as long as with a crew - but I was very pleased that it had all gone so smoothly. I didn't carry on much further, and stopped for the night on the outskirts of Mancetter.
The next morning, Sunday, I left at eight - that's Greenwich Mean Time; back on Real Time, hooray!! The weather was similar to Saturday and I just kept chugging on, quite slowly on the shallow Cov. At some point the boat that was behind me at the locks caught me up, and I let them by - when you're on your own it's not always convenient having another boat right behind you as sometimes on a nice straight bit you want to slow right down and quickly nip into the back cabin to tend the fire or something. I got to Hawkesbury around lunchtime, made an average turn (touched the bank gently but didn't get tangled in the bridgehole, and bonus marks for there being a day boat moored in front of the pub). Passed the boat I'd let by, who had stopped for lunch, and just kept on going. With being back on Real Time the clock no longer lied about the fact that the light started fading around four. By the time I got to the swing bridge at Brinklow, Black Sheep had caught me up again, and we both stopped around four thirty, just before the cuttings start. I chatted with him for a while, and then it was really dark, so I went back, cooked some tea on the stove, ate, washed, and went to bed at seven! I fell asleep too, although I did wake up between midnight and three am, which was just as well for the stove.
I was up again at six thirty and ready to go again at eight. Monday morning was misty with the sun big and white behind the cloud - a truly beautiful morning. Again I hardly met anyone. By lunchtime the mist was clearing and by the time I got to Hillmorton the sun was so hot I stripped down to a single t-shirt. Hillmorton was a pleasure, with one boat coming the other way but other than that completely deserted. And so on I went, on the final stretch now and with a lot more water underneath the boat than on the Cov I could wind it up a bit. At one point I saw a big Woolwich coming the other way, and sure enough it was Aldgate. I'd hoped to catch Nick at Hillmorton, because I had some curtains to give him (arranged at the Alvecote do at the end of August). I swiftly dipped down into the cabin and retrieved the bag from the side bed. I wasn't sure whether I'd be able to hand it to him, and made a split second decision to throw it into his hold instead, but did it left handed and a bit halfheartedly, so it bounced on the gunnel before falling... on the inside. And that was the nearest I came to a disaster all trip.
|I am sorry there is only one photo of the whole trip|
The sun beat down as I wound the last few miles to Braunston, and long strings of spider silk floated across the canal and trailed from the boat, which was covered in leaves, and it was all magical, and perfect. I got to Braunston Turn at ten to three and tied up next to Rat (so I can be the target for the hire boats coming out of the Turn for the next few weeks). Pete made me a cup of tea and showed me the work he's doing on Clent and James Loader, as well as some very large pieces of oak, then we went and talked about the work he's going to do on Chertsey. I had a final tidy up then we went and had a late lunch/early tea in the Boat House, and Pete then very kindly gave me a lift all the way back to Alvecote. I had a fantastic run back to Sheffield, and thus ended an utterly perfect boating weekend.