The Grand Tour: of Pubs!

Monday, July 22, 2019

I know the Grand Tour is over, but I thought it would be fun to do a quick summary of the pubs visited along the way. Each served a purpose, and though I also passed several that had closed down - a sad state of affairs - it was heartening to come across so many welcoming hostelries ready to provide either a swift half on the run or a proper dinner and a well-deserved break.

1. The Red House, Croxley, Day 1
I was utterly, utterly exhausted by the end of Day 1. Face full of diesel fumes, nose smacked by a windlass, somewhat doubting if I really wanted to keep going. Thank you Red House for the restorative pint and curry.

2. The King's Head, Day 2
Midday stop with Piran on Day 2. Preceded by several awkward attempts at mooring accompanied by some passive-aggressive comments from a nearby boat. Nice pub though, with exposed beams and an upper level minstrel gallery.

3. The Paper Mill, Hemel Hempstead, Day 2
Mooring for the second night, directly across from this, where we had dinner. I thought we would not get the boat closer to a pub. Of course I was wrong.

4. The Rising Sun, Berkhamsted, Day 3
Day 3, situated right at the lock in Berkhamsted, such that Piran was able to go in and order our drinks while the lock was filling, then retrieve them a few minutes later. The barman reported that this is apparently not an uncommon practice.

5. The Crystal Palace, Berkhamstead, Day 3
Within sight of the Rising Sun. We visited after a tour of the ruins of Berkhamsted Castle. I was also able to have the remainder of my pint to take away, since I could walk ten feet to the boat and pour it out into another glass so we could continue on our way.

6. The Globe Inn, Leighton Buzzard, Day 5
Alone, after a long long day which ended with a dispiriting chug through the seemingly endless stretches of private mooring in central Leighton Buzzard. Supper and a pint here was definitely what was needed.

7. The Royal Oak, Blisworth, Day 7
Just after Blisworth Tunnel at the lovely little village of the same name. The Royal Oak was friendly and I got to chatting with a couple locals who lived on boats nearby. Nice to have a bit of human contact and get some tips on the upcoming stretch of canal.

8. The Beer Boat, Banbury Locks, Day 8
You've heard about it before, but it bears repeating: BEER BOAT!!!

9. Braunston Marina Beer Tent, Day 9
This may be stretching the definition of "pub" but I think it counts and I make the rules here. Also notable because I arrived as they starting to pack up and drawing off the last of the kegs so: FREE BEER.

10. The Wharf Inn, Fenny Compton, Day 11
Pleasant end to the first day with Mark and Kathy, and good pie.

11. Harcourt Arms Oxford, Day 14
This was a slight miscalculation as my guide book and Google led me to believe this pub would have food, and it seemed nicely off the track from the very busy more trendy place nearby. No food, but I did have a half and rested my bones a bit anyway before proceeding to:

12. Gardeners Arms Oxford, Day 14
Supper here, ordered from what looked like an entirely vegetarian/vegan menu. I had "vegan dirty fries" which were nice, though I still maintain that "vegan cheese" is just Not. A. Thing.

13. The Anchor Oxford, Day 15
Treated myself to a nice dinner out on Saturday at this gastropub very near the canal. One of the lovely things about bringing your whole house with you on vacation is that if you feel like dressing up a bit for dinner you don't have to worry whether you packed anything appropriate. In fact, you don't have to worry about packing at all. I had the lamb. And Eton Mess for dessert.

14. Eagle and Child Oxford, Day 16
A particularly satisfying pub - once the haunt of Tolkein and C.S. Lewis. I had one of the snugs to myself where I sat in the right hand window with my beer and my lunch and my trashy serial killer novel. Perfect.

15. Isis Farmhouse, Day 17
This pub is only accessible via the towpath or the river. I like to think this means their beer kegs are delivered by boat, but we didn't ask. They also had the overly generous Ploughman's Lunch you've already heard about.

16. Barley Mow, Clifton Hampden, Day 17
A very short stroll from the campsite we moored alongside after the first day on the Thames. It was touch and go whether we'd get any food, or even a table, since the staff were harried almost to the point of rudeness by an unusual Monday evening rush. All turned out fine though, and I recall the sticky toffee pudding was credible.

17. Chequers, Marlow, Day 19
A quick refresher to kill time in Marlow. 

18. Druid’s Head, Kingston, Day 21
I tried to have a drink at a different pub closer to Teddington Lock after I'd made my pilgrimage to gather as much information as I could about the next day's events. Sadly that pub (the Hand and Flower) was no more. No matter, because The Druid's Head was 17th century, Grade II listed, and a short walk back to the boat. A fitting last pub.

Of course there were also a few drinks enjoyed on the back deck of the boat. And I hasten to add, for anyone fearing that my liver suffered even more than my poor aching nose on this trip, there were also days with no pubs at all. Nevertheless coming up on a new pub, especially one right on the water, was a particularly satisfying addition to the trip. It's only been a week or so since I finished the trip, but I kind of miss it already. And now it's been just a week or so since I finished the trip and I've already moved the boat again a few times and am now in previously uncharted territory in the far north east of London. I'm still contemplating one last boat adventure for the summer, while also preparing for the next job, which is starting in a few short weeks. More on all that another time.

The Grand Tour: Big Finish

Thursday, July 18, 2019

Day 22: Kingston to Brentford:

When last we left our hero she was moored in Kingston upon Thames with an impromptu support group of two other boats, all of us nervously awaiting the next morning’s trip through Teddington Lock. The entrance from the Thames back into the Grand Union Canal, is about five miles downstream of Teddington at Brentford Lock, meaning an hour or two of travel on the tidal part of the river Thames. Until Teddington, water levels and flow is controlled by the series of locks I’d travelled through, with accompanying weirs alongside.

The weirs regulate the water level along the river, locks allow boats to navigate past them.

Teddington is the last downstream lock on the Thames, meaning that after Teddington the water level rises and falls with the tide. The force of the tide ebbing and flowing can be substantial so for a small, flat-bottomed, and relatively under-powered narrowboat to have a hope of navigating the distance between Teddington and Brentford in a controlled fashion travel must be timed precisely with the tides. Going downstream, the recommendation is to leave Teddington half an hour before high tide (over what’s sometimes called slack water) when the tide is about to turn. As the water starts to fall, the current helps push the boat along. Leaving too early means very slow progress as the boat’s engine tries to “punch against the tide” and leaving too late means your speed at the entrance to Brentford lock will make it difficult to turn without being pulled too far downstream with the current. If you miss the turn into Brentford, the next (and only other) entrance to the canal system is the lock far downstream at Limehouse, and the amount of time it would take to get there means you’d be attempting that notoriously difficult turn in very unfavourable tide conditions. Next stop after that is, errr, Margate. Or possibly Dunkirk. Needless to say, I was a bit anxious about this whole procedure.

Luckily I had assistance in the form of the return of Day One’s able crew - Jeremy and Paola. They’re both experienced sailors so I thought they’d be ideal companions, and they were. We made the short hop from my Kingston mooring to the lock with ease and tied up along with several other narrowboats, all of whom were waiting for the tide to make the run to Brentford, each with a different level of apprehension about the manoeuvre. Adding to the confusion, the Experienced Guy I’d met the day before had been planning to leave at 11:20am, having devised a spreadsheet that calculated optimum times based on the tide tables. However, the lock keeper at Teddington firmly recommended 12:20pm, based on high water being at 12:50. It gradually became clear that the hour’s difference was a miscalculation between UTC (which is used on tide tables) and British Summer Time, and that Experienced Guy was going to need to revise his spreadsheet. We settled in to wait, chatting and passing the time until seven of us made for the lock at about 12:20.

Here are the front four of a flotilla of narrowboats in Teddington lock. Lucky Nickel was bang in the middle of the pack, which was ideal.

Once we exited the lock, the boats spread out into a long chugging line. The trip was largely uneventful, though we did have to keep a close eye out for other craft, especially rowers, who have the disadvantage of not looking where they're going, and of being very wide and a bit unwieldy. There was also the usual ration of river cruisers, kayaks, dragon boats, stand-up paddleboards and RIBs, all of which I managed to avoid. Jeremy cleverly started up his chart plotter app, which gave a continuous readout of our speed so we had a good sense of how fast the tide was turning. My average speed on Lucky Nickel is normally about 2.5 mph, reaching a top speed of 4mph with a slight current on the regatta course at Henley. Riding the tide on the Thames we reached blistering 5 knots, or 5.7 mph. And of course Jeremy and Paola were perfect companions, having used the waiting time at the lock to gather some food supplies, so all I had to do was sit at the tiller, be fed, and have my picture taken.

Like here, passing under Richmond Bridge.

Despite the lock keeper's estimate that the trip would be 45 minutes to an hour long, we were on the river for close to two hours before approaching the entrance to Brentford Lock. Frustratingly, the inlet is not sign-posted at all and is also hairpin turn due to the angle at which the River Brent meets the Thames coming downstream. We were all on high alert, with Jeremy spotting in the bow. We also had the advantage of seeing the boats in front of us start their turns. This, however, did not lessen my anxiety as we approached what I think was the most stressful left-turn of my life.

Of course it turned out fine. I started my manouevre quite early, having seen at least one of the leading boats take a very wide turn that looked a bit late. With Jeremy gesticulating from the bow and pointing out landmarks ("The big silver sculpture is on THE OTHER SIDE of the channel." Critical information.) I edged tight around the turn, coming very close the the upstream wall, but finally clearing easily and gratefully into the passage. Mission accomplished!


And here's a screenshot of the GPS track for the Scariest Left Hand Turn. Not bad.

We edged up to the bottom of Brentford Lock and waited while the first boats were cycled up and through. And I watched and waved and cheered as my nervous Kingston mates each appeared around the corner until all were safely gathered in. In the end it was not all that difficult, though I was very pleased to have had a spotter to help guide me in and provide moral support the whole way.

Looking towards at the bottom gates of Brentford Lock, closing me off from the river - back in the loving embrace of the Grand Union Canal at last. Upstream parts of the river were fun, but the further downstream I got, the more stressful it was. It's really really nice to be back.

We moored not long after, exactly where I moored after the boat's first trip through Brentford lock back in 2014. It seemed fitting, and I was in no mood for more locks. I was in the mood to celebrate!

And celebrate we did. Properly!

Relieved skipper

And trusty crew

It was a good day, but despite the momentousness of the occasion, I wasn't quite finished.

Day 23: Brentford to Home

I had hoped to recruit a crew for the last day, which involved going up the Hanwell flight of eight locks, but I was utterly unsuccessful in that attempt, meaning the last day of the trip would be a single-handed journey of six miles and ten locks. Perhaps it was fitting I finish on my own. I slept in, had a slap-up breakfast and set off.

Here's the boat patiently waiting for me to prepare a lock, while paddleboarders frolic nearby.

The day's travel was smooth but long. Luckily, there was a fair bit of foot traffic on the towpath, so sometimes I got a bit of help from passers-by. And then part way up the flight I ran into a man out for the afternoon with his young son, who was fascinated with the locks and the boat. The pair stayed with me through at least four locks, helping work the gates and chatting while the shy little boy was quietly educated about the workings of locks.

Here's my crew waiting by a gate paddle while the lock fills. They were just lovely. I even gave them a short ride on the boat between locks, which I was assured by Dad would be the highlight of the day, or possibly his entire life to date, for the little guy.

The Hanwell flight is interesting because several of its locks once used side ponds, which you can still see today. Side ponds are a way of conserving water by diverting the water draining from a lock into a nearby reservoir so that it can be used to partially refill the lock.

Explained well, if not exactly excitingly, in this video.

And here's a set of side paddles overlooking a very overgrown side pond. Clearly they are no longer in use.

The other cool site on this part of the canal is Three Bridges, a spot where the canal threads between a roadway above and a rail line below. This was the last big project of GSWPL hero and frequent blog subject Isambard Kingdom Brunel, who engineered how the rail line was inserted under the existing canal and roadway.

Taken from the roadway, you can see the canal on the left, which passes over the rail line in an iron trough.

I made it to the top of the Hanwell flight by about 4:30, finally completing the last of 175 locks on the trip.

Hanwell top lock! Number 90 on the system, completed 23 days after lock 89 at Cowley Peachey.

And then it was just a few miles to the turn at Bull's Bridge onto the Paddington Arm of the canal and I was back in very familiar territory. A short hop later and I arrived back at the marina and moored up. Job done.

This is the summary of the trip from, which I used extensively throughout the trip to estimate travel times from place to place. It was invaluable.

I didn't mention it at the time, but I made a purchase at a little shop at the bottom of the last flight of locks up to Braunston. You often see boats with small oval plaques fastened to the inside of their back doors. The cast metal and enamel medallions are just four inches across and feature the names of prominent canal landmarks or waterways. They're meant to signify that the boat to which the plaque is affixed has navigated that particular feature. Some denote particular tunnels or aqueducts or notable flights of locks, some whole systems like the Kennet & Avon Canal, and some are for what are called cruising rings - a circular route traveling a series of canals starting and ending at the same point. I have just completed the Thames Ring - going from London up the Grand Union to Braunston, down the Oxford Canal to the Thames, and along the river back to the Grand Union at Brentford. It seemed like tempting fate while I was standing looking at the display of plaques at Boat Shop near Braunston. But I did it anyway, though I worried outloud to the shopkeeper that I might be jinxing myself by buying the plaque before completing the journey. He thoughtfully tucked the item into an opaque envelope, taped it shut, and told me to hide it away until I finished.

And now I'm finished, I think it's time to put this up. (I'm also particularly chuffed that of all the Cruising Ring plaques I can see online, this journey is the longest by quite a margin.) (And I know this says 248 miles and my summary says 246. It's because I started counting slightly after I left the marina. Rest assured I really did those first two miles as well.)

Now I'm enjoying a few days at the marina resting and blogging and catching up on laundry and all the life admin tasks I've been ignoring for the last three weeks. (Hello 2018-19 taxes!) However, I think I'll be back out again soon. As my fellow Aden Bowman alum said, "I've got the urge for going." I'm more confident in myself and the boat than I've ever been, so while the Grand Tour might be finished, Lucky Nickel still has plenty of places to go. And Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers may just get to come along for some of it.

The Grand Tour: The middle of the end

Monday, July 15, 2019

Day 19: Reading to Marlow

By this time I could smell the barn and was feeling slightly anxious about getting where I needed to be when. I had a friend coming for drinks on the boat in the evening, but I did leave late from Reading because I took a few minutes in the morning to see the Bayeux Tapestry.

You thought it was in Bayeux didn’t you? Actually, you’re right. This is part of a complete copy hand-embroidered in the late 19th century by 35 members of the Leek Embroidery Society, who spent just over a year on the replica, led by Elizabeth Wardle. Housed at the Reading Museum, not far from the river.

Box ticked, I made my way around Fry’s Island to the good folks at Caversham Boat Services where they have a diesel pump on a long, narrow-boat friendly wharf that was easy to access. 105 litres of diesel and 5 litres of 30w motor oil and I was off on my own again, this time on the big bad river. (To clarify - the engine did not need an injection of 5 litres of oil in one hit, but I have been adding a few glugs most mornings, and I didn’t want to run out.)

Because this was my first day alone on the Thames, I had to figure out the rule for Thames locks that requires you to have two ropes from the boat to bollards while in a lock, which is obviously most easily accomplished with two people. Normally you use the bow and stern lines, but experienced narrow boaters will know the centre line is the best for controlling a boat single-handed. My solution, approved by the first lock keeper of the day, was to use the centre line to stop the boat (as normal) then keep that on one bollard, and add the stern line around another.

Standing on the back deck, both ropes in one hand. No problem.

And this is not something I was expecting to see in a lock… giant inflatable rubber duck on a raft. A fundraising scheme in aid of the RNLI.

The next notable milestone was a stately chug through Henley-on-Thames, home of the Henley Royal Regatta, an annual rowing competition that takes over the town each July. Run since 1839, the regatta is a highlight of the social calendar - attending is as much (if not more) about being seen than it is about watching rowing. The course starts at Temple Island and ends just above Henley Bridge. And because the race had finished just three days earlier, the floating booms that mark the course were still set up. And the arrows showing what way one is meant to navigate were clearly pointing onto the course so…

Lucky Nickel on the Henley Regatta Course! Completed at a speed of about 4mph.

I made it to Marlow in good time and found the last spot at a local park near the high street. Went into town to pick up a few supplies, and since I was waiting for my friend to arrive, I lingered for a bit at pub #17, The Chequers. Old housemate Paul made it to the boat by about 8pm and we had a nice night of G&Ts and chat before he caught the last train back to London. I’ll get there soon enough, though my route will be more circuitous.

Stats: 17 miles, 7 locks, 3.4lmph

Day 20: Marlow to Runnymede

A relatively uneventful day on the boat. Chugged along, ticked off the miles and the locks, and generally enjoyed the fact that the weather has been incredible for the whole trip. I’ve actually got little sunburned patches on my shins. Also, the windlass injury from Day 3 is healing well, and I’ve developed some pretty impressive rope-handling callouses on my hands. The first couple of days my hands were complaining a lot in the morning - tender and swollen and not at all happy about the excessive and particular demands of handling ropes that much. Now they’re tough as old boots.

Before he departed, Piran loaned me his English Heritage guide to the Thames Path - a walking trail that follows the course of the river from the Thames barrier to its source. The river is wide enough that I could have the book in my lap and consult as I go with little fear of veering so wildly off course that I hit anything. There’s a lot of room to move out here. The Thames Path guide calls this part of the river "Wind in the Willows" country, since it was the long time home of the author of the classic, Kenneth Grahame. This stretch of the river is the setting for the book, and several of the stately homes along the way are purported to have been the inspiration for Toad Hall. The Thames path guide has been a nice addition to my existing maps in the trusty Nicholson Waterways Guides.

I haven’t shown you the Nicholson Guides yet - they cover all the navigable inland waterways and have been my constant companion. I love how the map just kind of fades out when you get too far from the water. I also love that they show you not just useful things like where the locks and water points and boat yards are, but also spend a good amount of time and column inches on local sights and pubs.

If Henley was a highlight of Day 19, then surely Windsor was the notable location of Day 20. I had thought I might moor up for the night in Windsor, but arrived quite early so I decided to push on.

Not, however, without seeing this from a new and satisfying perspective.

Definitely no mooring here, round the back of the Windsor Castle and near the site of Frogmore Cottage, current home of Prince Harry and Meaghan and baby Archie.

It was good that I kept going, because I ended up getting a really nice mooring on National Trust property right at Runnymede, which Astute Go Stay Work Play Live Readers will recall is the site where King John signed the Magna Carta in 1215. It was a secluded leafy spot with room for just one boat, marred only by the busy road that runs between the river and all the Magna Carta tourist spots. Poor planning. Luckily, my spot had a nice screen of trees which screened me from the traffic noise a bit though, it did nothing for the fact that I was also on a busy flight path.

Private mooring.

I arrived just in time to pay my mooring fee at the National Trust tea shop, and though they were sort of technically closed the woman in the shop gave me lots of guides and information about the area, which I used to combine a run and a visit, including these notable sites:

An artwork called “The Jurors” by Hew Locke. Twelve bronze chairs "each decorated front and back with images and symbols relating to past and ongoing struggles for freedom, rule of law and equal rights."

The John F. Kennedy Memorial

Runnymede Memorial to the Magna Carta, interestingly built by the American Bar Association

And my favourite, a new “architectural artwork” called Writ in Water by Mark Wallinger, of Underground Labyrinth fame!

It’s also a bit of a labyrinth

With this at the centre

A quotation from the Magna Carta inscribed in mirror image in a steel ring that surrounds a pool of water. The words are read in the reflection. Lovely.

I also climbed the hill up to the RAF Memorial but arrived just as the caretaker was about to shut the gates, so there was no time to look around. Instead I took the long way back to the mooring and had a very agreeable evening having dinner out on the back deck enjoying my bucolic mooring. Good day.

Stats: 20 miles, 8 locks, 3.7lmph

Day 21: Runnymede to Kingston

The goal for Day 21 was to find a mooring at Kingston-on-Thames, a short run away from Teddington Lock. Teddington is the lock that separates the tidal downstream part of the Thames from the non-tidal upstream bit I've been on. Irritatingly, there's a short bit of tidal water between Teddington lock and Brentford lock - the entrance to the Grand Union Canal. This means a few hours on the tidal Thames, which needs to be done at just the right time to catch the tides - as they're on the turn - minimising the current and giving a keel-less little narrowboat a hope of maintaining control and making the hairpin turn into Brentford. I'm a bit (read: a LOT) nervous about this manoeuvre, so I wanted to get to Kingston in good time to be able to scope things out.

The day itself was relatively easy. I ended up sharing locks with a couple who were heading for the River Wey. I've found that boaters are almost entirely a friendly, chatty and contented lot, and it was nice having someone to talk to while waiting in the locks. I was also chuffed that, as they faffed with their ropes getting sorted in one lock they commented, "I don't know how you do this on your own!". Maybe I'm getting the hang of this.

Preparing to go through Shepperton lock, at the confluence of the Thames and the Wey Navigation

Looking back at closed lock gates

I shared a couple locks as well with a boat that was also planning the Teddington-Brentford trio Saturday, and the driver passed on his knowledge of three previous transits, advising me to be in the lock at 11:20am. It was nice to have that bit of inside knowledge, and it chimed with the timings advised on the CRT website. Or so we thought...

Passed another big site on Day 21 - Hampton Court! There were moorings a bit further on from this, which I maybe should have taken advantage of. Instead, I pushed on to Kingston to be closer to the lock for the big day.

Luckily, once I reached Kingston there were two small narrowboats moored at the very end of the public space and they kindly waved me in to double-moor. They also helped haul the boat alongside after I missed the first pass and had to turn and come in again. Peter, Sandy, Ian, Tess the dog and Gladys the cat were exceptionally welcoming, offering tea and crisps after I got tied off. We chatted amiably in the afternoon sun, and I found out they were also planning the Teddington-Brentford run, and were nervous newbies, so we commiserated together. It was a lovely little impromptu community of three boats.

Tess on the neighbouring boat

I spent the evening walking the mile down to Teddington Lock to check it out with my own eyes, and got further advice from a narrowboat that had come through travelling upstream that day. Then I zipped back to Kingston and pub #18 - The Druid's Head - before retiring to the boat in nervous anticipation of the next day's challenge. More on that, hopefully with a triumphant report on the final leg, when we return.

Stats: 14 miles 5 locks 2.9 lmph