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Bill Kennedy

12 weeks on the cut

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Chapter 11 – Week 10, R Severn

 

Saturday July 3

Dr Foster went to Gloucester in a shower of rain…

 

We set off optimistically through the Avon Lock as soon as we were able. This turned out to be around 9am as the lock is manned by volunteers from the LANT (Lower Avon Navigational Trust) and that is when they come on duty. The lock spans the narrow isthmus of land where the Avon and Severn run close by one another so once you are through the lock you are on the Severn, and an impressive river it is.

 

You are given an idea of the sort of traffic it can carry when you enter its first lock, the Upper Lode Lock which is enormous. We pulled up at its mammoth entry gates where a red light was flashing. Bill set me down on a shaky wooden platform to scale up to the station of the lock keeper and find out the procedure. The keeper seemed a little peeved that I had done so, explaining that the red light meant he did not yet have the lock set for us and that it would turn green when he was ready and that there was no need to come to his office. I should have gathered that the shaky platform was a deterrent. He mellowed when I explained we were foreigners and didn’t know the system. He explained to me that he couldn’t let us through because we had a hire boat and because “There’s a tide today”. Now the significance of this statement eluded me until later.

 

Being on a tidal river I’d have thought there was a tide every day - twice a day, in fact. He explained that to continue on the Severn now we’d have to sign an insurance waiver, and only the boat owner could do that, and no, a phone call from the owner would not suffice. “Oh dear”, said I, “it would have been nice if the chap at the Avon Lock had told us this”, the answer to which was “That’s a different river”. “Do tell”, thought I - or as the kids would say “No shit, Sherlock” (they learned that after they left home). He explained that we couldn’t proceed until 12midday and when I explained we couldn’t moor where we were and couldn’t loiter about on the river for three hours, he came up with a compromise to get us out of his hair. He said he’d let us through if we promised to stop at the first pub half a mile down river and wait until midday. I returned to the boat via the scrambling down the bank route and gave Bill the good news. With no other option, we entered the lock. The entry gates belied the size of the lock. As mentioned, it was the biggest lock we’d ever been in. You could conduct canoe races in it. I had some trouble attaching our bow rope as I couldn’t get close enough to the vertical wire system (as in Limehouse Lock on the Thames). This impressed Bill no end and when he’d attached his rope but not secured it to the boat and then tried to swing the bow around so I could grab mine, which in turn pulled his rope almost out of his hands, all the while giving him nightmares about ropes around props. As it was, the fill turbulence took the bow to the wall and I was able to attach my rope then. The keeper then lowered us a bucket on a rope containing instructions about entering Gloucester Lock. All was then explained about the tide. Apparently, when the tide at Sharpness, at the mouth of the Severn, is greater than 7.6metres, then the effects of the tide reach upstream to the Upper Lode Lock, hence his statement “There’s a tide today”. So here we are at the pub, filling in time until midday, writing this, reading and having an early lunch. Something tells me today will definitely be a day for dinner out, when we finally reach Gloucester.

 

On the dot of midday, we set out from the aforementioned pub (to which we didn’t repair as we wanted to keep out wits about us for the trip to Gloucester). The rain in the rhyme came across in periodic fairly heavy bursts, just to add to Bill’s comfort at the tiller. We had been told that the approach to the Gloucester lock is hairy. As you approach it there is a long brick wall and from it dangle chains in a scalloping fashion. As the current sweeps you past these you have to bring your boat to the wall (and stay there), grasp the chain and tie your boat to it, slipping into neutral as you do so (but not before or you’d lose your steering power). It is important that the stern rope is done first as, if you fixed the bow first, the current would sweep the stern around and then the current would tip you over and bury you under the debris it is carrying downstream (I have pictures of substantial portions of trees floating by us, on this big tide today).

 

We knew that somewhere on our journey downstream, that there was a sign with the number of the Gloucester Lock Keeper and an instruction to phone them from this point. Now I just happened to be taking a photo of a charming pub and promising we’d stop there on our way back, when we realised that the sign was there. Fortunately I had pen and paper in my pocket at the ready and copied it down while Bill called it out. Then I called to let them know we were five miles out. “Tha’s fine”, said the voice, “you’ll be abou’ three qaartas of un hour, but ye’ll huv ta look ou’ fa robbie’s”. Just as I was about to say, “Robbie, who’s Robbie”, the voice said “ya, thar’s logs ‘n robbie(sh) cumin’ down wi’ tha tide. Jus take it slow like”. “Thank you”, said I, muffling a chuckle “we will”. (I am sure the accent was Scottish so you’ll have to read this in your best Scots voice to enjoy it).

 

I asked Bill how he’d like me to report his entry into Gloucester Lock, which happened after we’d been clinging anxiously to the chains for twenty minutes. He replied “There was nothing the matter with my entry into the lock. It’s what I did after that that was the problem.” He took us in very nicely on the left, but not quite close enough to the lock wall and then the incoming current swept us away from it. This meant that I couldn’t get my bow rope into the hook on a rope that the lock keeper was dangling down the twenty foot side of the lock wall, like a big fishing line So Bill then had to bring the bow closer which he finally did and my rope trick was achieved. Then, while I held the bow fast, he had to bring the stern in. Unfortunately he was so overwhelmed by the whole thing, (including the twenty or so gongoozlers looking down at us), that he did the reverse of what you should do. I might add that in the whole journey he’s never done this before but I have at least three times. Bill said he just looked up at the lock keeper beseechingly who then called down the correct instruction and all went well. The lock was so deep that it took twenty minutes to fill. Finally we emerged into the basin, took the first mooring we saw, moored up and made a cuppa. I asked Bill if he was exhausted and he said, with a grin, “Only in the head.”

 

We have been for a stroll around the docks and town. Tried to visit the splendid cathedral but there was an ordination service about to start so it was closed to the public. Perhaps tomorrow. There is an excellent Waterways Museum which we’ll see in the morning and heaven on a stick, a four story warehouse of antiques. Bill will go and see the military museum while I do the antique thing (we know our limitations). We have treated ourselves to a pleasant Indian meal tonight and are tucked up tight for the night in our cosy wee boat.

 

Sunday July 4

Museums and History

 

I finally dragged my lazy bones out of bed at 9.30am - my best effort yet. I had woken earlier, attended to the necessaries, returned to bed with a cuppa from William, read my book for a bit then thought I’d just have a little snuggle in for a while - and the rest was history. Vaguely I heard gulls wheeling and screeching, boat motors, church bells and lock bells but chose to sink back into my slumberous stupor.

 

The National Waterways Museum was the first stop for today and we were there shortly after it opened at 10am. As we neared the end of the third floor we realised it was 1pm. The displays were excellent and they tied together well, the relationship between sea-based shipping coming up the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal into the Gloucester Docks, with the canal based distribution of goods throughout the country. It even featured the canals part in the construction of the railways, which in turn, led to the destruction of the canal transport system. We saw film footage that we’d never seen before on the renewed interest in the canals as a leisure venue in the 50’s after their nationalisation in 1948.

 

Then it was back to the boat for lunch after which we decided to do our own thing. I went off to the four storey antique warehouse (where I found very few things to tempt me) and Bill went off to the Museum of the Gloucestershire Regiments. He says he enjoyed it very much, especially a chat with the chap on the desk who was an ex-member of the regiment and very interested in Bill’s experiences in Vietnam. In typical fashion I returned to the boat immediately after closing time at the antique warehouse, clutching only a small perfume bottle as a memento of my visit.

 

Monday July 5

Cathedrals and Canals

 

As we had promised ourselves, this morning we went in search of the library as it’s been three weeks since we’ve been able to find a library that’s open, that has internet access, computers with USB ports and ones that will let us use our reader. On the latter point we don’t even mention it now as some of the librarians are so paranoid about viruses they wont let you use a removable hard drive even if their hardware and software will support it. We can tell whether the machines have USB ports as they are standard Government issue and all look the same so once we are granted access, we just plug in. Anyhow, today we had success in Gloucester.

 

Those tasks done, we wandered off down the “via sacre” to Gloucester Cathedral. This is a truly amazing and very beautiful yellow stone building which is used fully by the community to this day. They have volunteer guides present every day and we struck a grand dame in her late 70’s who was so switched on and knew all her dates - she was a delight. There are three major chapels and at least eight smaller ones, including three, one story up. The vaulted ceilings were splendid and the organ reputedly one of the finest in Europe. The Lavatorium, the monks’ communal washing area, was still totally intact with its stone trough and carved recess for their towels and clothes - outdoors in the Cloisters - nippy in winter. The Norman lead font, c1140, which was given to the Cathedral in 1940, is in use to this day for baptisms. The gloriously decorated tower was built from 1450 to 1457. Once again, I thought, “If these flagstones could only talk.”

 

There were other museums and galleries in and around Gloucester that we could have spent days viewing but we felt a need for some wind in the hair and set off this afternoon for Saul Junction, on our way to Sharpness. Last weekend, Saul Junction hosted a “Folk on the Canals” Festival and by all accounts it was a major happening. Apparently a narrow boat caught fire. We saw its burnt out hulk at the local boat builders. They were still packing up from the Festival and moorings were still not what you’d call plentiful (we had to moor half a mile from the junction). On our way to Saul we went through four manned swing bridges which had to be rotated parallel with the canal before we could be signaled through. The R Severn and the Gloucester and Sharpness Canal are the only places where we’ve seen traffic lights on the water. They are common on this canal and there are several more tomorrow. This afternoon, we took a stroll down the disused arm of the Stroudwater Canal (which predates this canal by almost fifty years) to a little village called Wheatenhurst and looked at the local manor house and nearby church, the tower of which had 1844 on it but the central part of the church, made of rough hewn stone, is obviously much older. In the morning when we move on, there is another little hamlet I want to walk to, called Frampton-on-Severn, which the guide book says is drop dead gorgeous. With no locks for exercise it’s good to stretch our legs.

 

Tuesday July 6

Sunshine at Sharpness

 

We woke to a wonderful summer’s day with not a cloud in the sky and a promise of temperatures befitting the time of year. We passed through Saul Junction, having moored short of it the night before and at the third swing bridge which marked access to Frampton-on-Severn, we moored to go and have a look at the village, which was written up in the canal guide as a spot of country heaven. We came upon the village with its central green with cricket pitch and club, and surrounding manor house, thatched cottage, ivy covered pub and general store with post office annexe out the back. Once in the store I asked directions to the nearest cash point. “We’ve got one”, the lady said proudly. “Oh good”, thought I…“ but it don’t work”, she said, and went on…“but just so long as you can tell Agnes your PIN number, she can probably get you some money. It won’t cost nothing to ask”. “Thank you, said I, but we’ll probably leave it until Sharpness” (Sharpness didn’t even have one, let alone one that didn’t work).

 

As we passed along the Gloucester and Sharpness canal, which I might add, is a splendidly wide and deep body of water that deceives you into thinking it’s a river, the Severn meandered lazily along through its valley to our right, with picturesque, part farmed and part wooded uplands beyond - a true sense of wide open spaces that we’ve felt more here than anywhere else on our travels. Along the canal, we travelled for some considerable distance behind a large barge belonging to The Willow Trust which was taking a group of disabled children and their carers on an outing. The kids were up in the wheel house having a whale of a time steering the boat (with the captain near at hand). Bill just fell in quietly behind them and we watched as they waltzed from one side of the canal to the other. About two miles down the track the captain realised we were there and pulled over so we could pass. All in the name of good fun.

 

The sunshine was, by this time, causing the British men to go bare chested and put up the beach umbrellas and the women to don their bikinis and take to the li-los. We, I might add, had only just shed our jumpers, but later in the day, gave the shorts their first airing since the Thames.

 

On this canal there are quite a number of manned swing bridges and, at a hamlet called Purton, there are two in quick succession on a right angled corner. At the approach to the first the view of the keeper’s station, and presumably his view of the entire canal, is obscured by two young trees so it was quite some time while we sat midstream in neutral before our presence was recognised. During this time we drifted towards the bridge and then had to reverse and having limited steerage in reverse and no bow thrusters, we were carried to the left bank, quite the wrong side to be on to pass other craft, let alone on a corner. There was little we could do to correct the situation at this stage so we sat tight while two cruisers came towards us and passed us, then we went through. Now hire boats are apparently a rarity on this canal because the access is through tidal waters and there are insurance issues, and either our performance or presence respectively upset or impressed the old keeper that he came out and took our picture. I was tempted to take a picture of him taking a picture of us but I restrained myself.

 

We arrived at Sharpness, not knowing what to expect. The feeling was a little like that at Ellesmere Port. Ghosts of a magnificent, very busy, commercially vibrant shipping industry were everywhere. Silos, grand locks (several in disuse), empty warehouses, silent cranes, rusting hulls abound. There is a small community here, a fertilizer bagging company, boat builders, a scrap metal company and a boating fraternity. We went for a two hour ramble around it all and got the feel of how it used to be. The grandness of the river persists and somehow compensates for the slow degradation of the man made imprint.

 

There are two magnificent stone pylons either side of the canal on the approach to Sharpness. They are the remnants of a splendid railway bridge across the Severn which was demolished one night in the 1960’s when two oil freighters mistook the river for the lock and tried to proceed upstream. The remains of nine of the pylons can be seen at low tide and allow you to imagine how impressive the bridge would have been.

 

To our surprise and delight, the very pleasant couple, Linda and Keith, we’d met during our “detention” at the pub mooring, waiting for the tide two days ago, were here, so we strolled up to say hello. They were a wealth of information about the area and at happy hour we shared a drink with them. After dinner, they came to our boat and we chatted until after 11pm about boats and boating, sharing lots of laughs, especially about taking a ducking or “taking a look”.

 

Wednesday July 7

Thermals, Gales and Delays

 

We woke, pretending to ignore the weather forecast. Yes it was overcast and the windows were cold to the touch and yes, the grass was bending at 30degrees to the vertical outside those windows. But hey, the sun had shone yesterday and we’d been in short sleeves hiking around clutching bottles of mineral water, hadn’t we? Surely it was just a temporary setback. Wrong. So on with the thermals, heavy jumpers and wind jackets (the locals condescended to a light “cardi”).

 

With no sunshine to enjoy we decided to try to make it back to Frampton-on-Severn for their Farmers’ Market, on from 9-12am on Wednesdays. We needn’t have rushed. Admittedly we arrived in the last half hour but the market needs an injection of some good PR work and more stall holders. The setting is delightful, in the old half timbered barn of the manor house, off the village green, but the presentation is sadly lacking. I think I’d be a regular Audrey Forbes-Hamilton if I lived in a village like that

 

It being lunch time and considering our disappointment, we thought we’d repair to the pub for some of their famed sausages, on a nice baguette, we fantasise by way of compensation, you understand. The front door was strangely closed for an establishment that advertised an 11am opening so we found a side door (many of the pubs here have two entrances - the side one in case the wind is blowing) and were just about to enter when two men carrying a large door came out and the first said, “Not open today”. That was it. No explanation. No apology. No “kiss me foot”. Nothing. And on market day to boot. So we returned to the boat with our meager purchases, which fortunately included a pack of smoked salmon and some trout pate, popped a couple of those finish-off-the-cooking-yourself baguettes in the oven, pulled out the salad goodies and created our own feast.

 

The weather by now was showing signs of going down hill. The clouds were rolling in and the wind was increasing. By one- thirty, as we went through Sandford swing bridge, the lady keeper told us they were having problems with the wind at the Saul Junction bridge (getting the bridge closed again), to which we’d come next. She warned us there may be delays. She did not warn us (nor could she have known) that these delays would last three hours. So there we sat, trying to read, eating out of boredom, jumping up every time we heard a noise, to see if anything was happening (helped by too many cups of coffee). Finally I heard a faint winding noise and they were doing a final opening for the day, even though the wind was as bad as it had been all day. We rather think the poor lady didn’t have enough muscle around before then to help her get the bridge closed again.

 

Then we and two other boats were off at almost full throttle to keep steering power. The wind was so powerful it threatened to blow our caps off so we switched to beanies. The rain held off until 6pm when we arrived at Sellars Bridge where there were moorings and a pub. It was still two hours to Gloucester and the bridges stop operating at 7pm. When the keeper shouted to us from the bridge that there wasn’t much in the way of moorings left in Gloucester, we decided to call it a day. As we tried to drop the boat back into a space in front of a big cruiser, the wind took our bow and threatened to spin us across the canal so Bill completed the circle and came in again. With the help of the cruiser folk who kindly took our ropes and moored us in, we are now firmly attached to the bank by three sturdy ropes attached to rings. We indulged in a drink at the pub then back to the boat for an hour with the heater on, a curry and hot baths. If we weren’t so tired we’d have lit the fire too.

 

Thursday July 8

Escaping the G&S Canal

 

The rain drops on the window in the morning weren’t a good sign. The Bureau had promised more of the same as yesterday’s weather for today so if the pattern was recognisable, it would be overcast in the morning, the wind would get up in the afternoon and when it dropped at night, the rain would come. This led to a plan. Let’s be at the fourth bridge when it opens at 9am (the three before we could boat under). Making better time than we expected we arrived too early and had to wait twenty minutes or so before it opened and we were way too early again when we reached the big Llanthony drawbridge at the entrance to Gloucester basin. Content to moor outside, we busied ourselves getting water and disposing of rubbish and cleaning the odd bit of seagullsh off the boat and then began the long hike to the railway station.

 

The end of our boating adventure has been sneaking into our thoughts and we reluctantly realised we must do something about booking our train from Wolverhampton to Gatwick for our three days on Jersey, the finale of our trip. That task done (or sort of done as reservations for that day are not yet open), it was restock the larder on the way back to the boat. Walking down the high street in the cold about midday, a rather wonderful aroma reached our nostrils and we realised it was coming from the Homemade Cornish Pastie Shop - instant lunch on arrival back at the boat. Just then the drawbridge began to open but we decided not to rush and we’d catch the next opening in 45 minutes - big mistake in hindsight, except that we got to chat at length to some nice people who were also in the three hour hold-up due to the wind at Saul Junction yesterday. They spend five months a year on their boat and the chap said when it’s near time to go, he gets all edgy and eager and impatient. When we did finally go through the drawbridge into the basin, we didn’t moor as we thought it wouldn’t be long before entry into the lock but the lock keeper was waiting for and bringing in boats that were hanging on the chains in the river as we had done, so we had to spend 45 minutes waiting in the basin with nowhere to moor. Bill managed this idling beautifully considering that the wind wanted us to be somewhere else. Finally it was our turn and we were the only boat waiting. The keeper apologized for the delay “but what you can do” as a Lebanese friend of ours would say.

 

And then it was away up the Severn. Bill did all the early tortuous part of the river and then we reached “lower parting” where the first mates used to take over from the expert captains on the big vessels coming up the river, and the river becomes wide and relatively straight. This is called “the long reach”. Seeing this nice big wide stretch of water, I volunteered to do a bit of driving. Despite the cold and the biting wind it was a very pleasant experience and I continued up past Haw Bridge, driving for about an hour. During that time I persuaded Bill to set a fire in the stove and I’m sitting beside it now, with a nice wine, having reached our moorings for the evening at Lower Lode. This is the place we had to wait for the tide to be right on the way down and where we first met Linda and Keith. Some other folk have just joined us on the floating pontoon, and we’ve moved up to the very end and a second boat has moved back so the third can fit in. Predictably, the rain has begun.

 

Friday July 9

Up to Upton-on-Severn

 

Is that sunshine I see? But on further inspection, the wind is still with us, and was especially felt as we drove into it. We have reached the last two weeks of our trip and have time on our hands to dawdle back to Brewood. As a result, our goal for today was just to reach Upton-on-Severn, a couple of hours away. This part of the upper Severn is very pretty. We passed very few boats on the trip up and found a lovely mooring just waiting for us at the floating pontoon. To put joy in my heart, it was market day and all the little stalls had their stripy covers fluttering on the river bank above us.

 

The market was a true Farmer’s Market and there was a wine maker, baker, pie maker, sausage maker, butcher and fruit and veggie growers among others. So we are replete with wonderful fresh raspberries, which we’ve been feasting on of late (delicious), a chunky meat pie for tea, with home grown veggies and egg custard tart for pud. We had a lovely stroll through the village - up one side of the high street and down the other. Many of the houses are very old (16th and 17th century) lovely old rickety half timbered structures with diminutive doors and low beamed ceilings, and later ones with their Dickensian bow-fronted windows, right on the footpath, and quaint little alleys between the buildings to courtyards at the back. The village is probably the most preserved in total of all we’ve seen, and quite delightful. There was not a supermarket in sight and all produce was sold from these tiny little ancient two room shops. Pubs abounded (we saw six) along with tea rooms and in all, the sense of community was very strong. We have decided to stay the night here.

 

This allowed us to have a wonderful afternoon read and a nap. This evening the weather has remained fine and some lovely young people have pulled up beside us and asked to breast up. They are getting married tomorrow. They are having the service at nearby Painswick in the Cotswolds and the reception at one of the nearby castles. They have all their mobile phones buzzing with last minute arrangements and have repaired to the pub to consolidate these. We’ve promised not to wake them too early when we slip away in the morning.

 

 

Progress This week Distance (miles) 86 Locks 7

Total Distance (miles) 707.5 Locks 535

 

The journey continues………

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