On Board
Narrowboat "FRILFORD"
(British Waterways No. 500645)

 

Chapter 27 – "JEWS and Me Abroad on the Llangollen"


Second Half October 2005


Back in early May I had been making my way slowly down the Market Harborough Arm of the Leicester Arm of the Grand Union Canal to the terminus at Market Harborough when, with a mile or so to go, I happened upon a slow-moving narrowboat ahead of me. All speed terms on the cut are relative; at the time I was doing about 2.5 miles and hour, if that. The boat ahead of me was hardly moving at all! It being a pleasant afternoon and the basin at Market Harborough being a few tight bends away there was no reason to do anything but follow the boat ahead. The fact that I was often having to drift in neutral or actually engage reverse gear occasionally to maintain my station behind the other boat made me smile somewhat, but that was all.

Just as we arrived at the basin the boat ahead pulled over and moored on the line. My plan was to wind in the basin, come out again and moor on the line below it, but facing the other way. As I slid, almost silently, past the other boat the tall, grey-haired man with the ponytail standing on the stern looked up from ordering other people about and exclaimed “Oh hello – have you been following us? I didn’t see you. For how long?” “For about the last mile or so,” I replied, laughing. “What are you doing now?” Ponytail came back. “I’m going to wind in the basin and tie up behind you in that gap there…” “Right, well after that come and join us by that bench for a drink,” was Ponytail’s welcome response.

Ponytail turned out to be Wes and the lovely person with him was his partner Sharon. The new and still in its primer light grey livery 58 foot trad-style narrowboat was Simba Dada, their home from home. It was a stroke of luck meeting Wes and Sharon that day, for they became the first of a select band of people whom I have now met on the cut with whom I have become good friends and with whom I actually enjoy spending time…

Wes has a fantastic capacity for drawing people into his circle, me being the lucky recipient of his vast bonhomie that day. Having made FRILFORD fast and tidied her up a bit I joined Wes and Sharon, their friend Julie and a couple of others on a small grassy knoll by a bench where drink was taken. It was mid afternoon. At some stage during the early evening an older couple on a tow path walking holiday passed by. Except no-one passes by when Wes is entertaining. Several hours later they wove their way back to their town-centre hotel laughing and joking, having abandoned all attempts at more tow path walking. Not constrained by such commitments Wes, Sharon, Julie and me carried on until the small hours and we have been carrying on in various ways since!

It was Wes who asked me if I’d be around on the Llangollen Canal in mid October as some American friends whom they’d met on the cut (and I have since learned from John and Elizabeth, for they are the friends in question, that they’d got chatting to Wes one day on a piece of canal somewhere and had been friends ever since) would be hiring a boat at Wrenbury and would I join them for a couple of weeks cruising on the Llangollen? At the time I thought I’d be long gone. Having got into the Llangollen in early September with no intention of staying, I could not see myself being there in mid October, unless I went away and came back. However, life on the cut is not usually dictated by the sort of commitments and schedules by which we have to live in the ‘real’ world so I would not have to clear any diary entries to be around the Llangollen in mid October. In the event, what with several trips over the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and having to make not one but two car journeys south to attend unexpected and somewhat upsetting funerals, the days rolled by and suddenly it was early October. Of course I would meet the others in Wrenbury.

I set off to make the rendezvous on 13th October. I hadn’t done a great deal on FRILFORD since coming back from Llangollen with Felicity and Father on 30th September, so it was good to be moving again. Having left the Branch at Ellesmere at around ten-thirty I was through the Ellesmere Tunnel and the various lift bridges and was at the staircase locks at Grindley Brook by quarter to four in the afternoon. I had been lucky with the lift bridges: there were a surprising number of hire boats around and I was able to get the hirers to operate the bridges for me. This much traffic meant there was a queue for the locks at Grindley Brook. However, there are good services at Grindley Brook so I was able to get rid of my rubbish, charge my water tank and empty my slurry tank whilst in the queue. By the time I’d finished, the locks were clear and I had an easy run through.

On the other side of the staircase locks are three short pounds and three more locks. A chap I recognised from the Ellesmere area spotted me and came over. “You’re singlehanded, aren’t you?” “Yes”, I replied. “Me too,” he said, “but I’ve stopped for the day. Give me your windlass and I’ll lock you through these three…” Which is what he did.

There is a really good easy camaraderie on the cut at times. Not at all times, mark you. There are enough of the ‘I’m-the-only-one-who-knows-what-they’re-doing-round-here-and-oh-the-fools-I-have-to-suffer’ brigade to keep one in touch with the reality of human failings, but generally speaking people on the cut are affable and helpful to each other. Hire boaters tend to be so in a different way to the own-boaters, and the people who actually live on their boats, especially those who live on their boats and actually move up and down the canal system, are different again. Possibly hire boaters feel a bit excluded and, unfairly, there are factions of the boat owning community who don’t seem to have much time for hire boaters, but this is unreasonable. Personally I have come to love the life on the cut and if others can find a way of enjoying a glimpse of that life too, then good luck to them. Of course they have limited experience. We all started with little or no experience, but does that make us worthy of derision? I think not. I’m not one to butt in, but sometimes one sees really inexperienced hire boaters making a complete hash of something, and it is nice to go over and offer some advice. I am always at pains to explain that there are a host of ways of doing any one thing on a boat, and none of them are necessarily wrong, and then go on to explain how I might do something in their situation. Usually the hirers are grateful for the advice and we part affably. Hire boaters are also a good source of labour for the itinerant singlehander! When a group of them are struggling manfully with a hire boat and then gather I am on my own they usually offer to lift or swing a bridge for me, or lock me through somewhere, and I am happy to accept! They feel empowered and I get to stand on the back of FRILFORD looking nonchalant, something I don’t get to do in a lock very often!

Better them than the ‘we’d-better-help-the-singlehander’ people. There seems to be a feeling amongst some boaters, and in the main it comes from the sort of own-boaters who, perhaps, stick to a particular cruising area, who consider that singlehanders, particularly itinerant ones who are not indigenous to their cruising area, get in the way. Help comes but with actual or implied ‘tut-tutting’ and comments which suggest that I am lucky that their help is at hand and that whilst they haven’t really planned to spend time locking others through, they’d better help the singlehander otherwise they’ll (either them or me) be there all day.

Recently a singlehander woman friend of mine, not Jayne, set off from Ellesmere to go to Hurlston. I followed her an hour or so behind. At one point I was just going into a lock as another boat arrived on the lower layby berth. As I was steadying FRILFORD and preparing to shut the top gates behind me a windlass-carrying woman appeared from the boat below and walked resignedly towards me. “You on your own?” she asked and I explained that I was. “Get on your boat, then” she said, “and I’ll do this. There’s a woman ahead of you who’s also on her own. I had to help her as well…”

I bit my tongue and thanked her. She didn’t ’have to help’ me. The lock was against her (i.e. full when she wanted it empty) anyway so she’d’ve had to empty it whether FRILFORD and I were in it or not. I would quite happily have worked the lock my self, leaving the bottom gates open for her, her husband and her boat to enter the lock as I exited. It was but a small incident but one which gets repeated and gets no less frustrating. Singlehanders are a bit of a separate breed; not for nothing are they singlehanded. As a singlehander I have found other singlehanders more than ready to accept help from me but also ready to do things themselves, in the way they always do them, and not expect, and certainly not require, others to help them. At the risk of sounding ungrateful I wish the ‘we’d-better-help-the-singlehander’ people would realise that we are delighted and maybe a little flattered to accept their help but that we do not require their help. Give help in a helpful and generous way or go about your business and we singlehanders will go about ours. Actually just help anyway…. I hardly ever have to bite my tongue!

I spend that night just above Povey’s Lock, in the same place Christopher and I had moored a few weeks earlier. Next day I was away by just after ten in the morning and by approaching noon had done Povey’s Lock, Willymoor Lock, Quoisley Lock and Marbury Lock. I’d done them on my own with no ‘we’d-better-help-the-singlehander’ women involved. Miraculous – how did I do it?!

I am not ‘The Great I Am’, however… not in my nature. The swing bridge at Wrenbury was going to be a whole different thing. It is a stopping-traffic type electro-hydraulic swing bridge with not the easiest of accesses to the ‘working parts’ for a singlehander. The last time I’d been through it Christopher had worked the bridge. I knew what I was going to do but reckoned I’d be holding up the traffic for a bit of time whilst I did it. In the event British Waterways, thank you British Waterways!, had some men doing some work to it. As I ghosted up to it one of the men spotted me, yelled “You on your own?”, got a thumbs-up from me and promptly opened the bridge. I was through in a trice, he dropped the bridge and not a road vehicle was inconvenienced – marvellous!

Winding in the basin at Whitchurch is a bit tight as the hire company Avechurch have a base there and their boats just about fill the basin. However, being 49 feet in length FRILFORD is a bit easier to handle than some boats and I was able to wind without difficulty. I started to reverse towards some moorings under the trees below the bridge when I spotted something I recognised – a dog called Caspar! Close by was a person who could have been Sharon and the whole sighting was confirmed by the emergence, from a now splendidly painted green boat, of a distinctive ponytail! Wes and Sharon, with Caspar the dog, were aiming for the Dusty Miller to try out their famed winter warmer “Black Cat”.

I joined them. “The Cat” was good! Later that evening John and Elizabeth, Wes and Sharon’s American friends from near San Francisco turned up and we dined in the Dusty Miller. John and Elizabeth turned out to be the charming and enthusiastic type of Americans who certainly enjoy England and what it has to offer. Within moments of meeting them I felt as though I’d always known them.

Next day John and Elizabeth picked up their boat and promptly left it moored beside FRILFORD and Simba Dada. Wes had a plan and he drove us all to Llanberis at the base of Snowdon (England and Wales’ highest mountain). Wes is a mountaineer of considerable experience and achievement and for a moment I thought this would be one of those “we’ll just nip up to the summit and back before we have a spot of lunch...” sort of days. Since that would have been 3560 feet up and, presumably, the same down I was wondering how my honed-for-canal-work tired old body would cope. Sadly, but fortunately for me perhaps, Wes has a dicky knee at present, so we walked about 800 feet up a path, looked at the view, watched the fully-booked, and about to be cancelled, trains and came back down again for a slap-up late lunch in a climber-beloved café in town. A great day – a complete foil to life on the cut and a great shake-down for our little party.

17th October saw our little convoy set off on its mission to make Llangollen and to get back in the next ten days or so, all the while having fun fun fun! John and Elizabeth had done some canal boating previously, when, not knowing any better, they thought it normal to step onto a full-length 72 footer and take her off down the picturesque but narrow and meandering Oxford Canal. Evidently they had done very well for at the same time as protesting that they were poorly experienced and needed instruction, they looked very relaxed and competent on the 47 foot Alvechurch boat Forest Weaver as we set off through the Wrenbury Lift Bridge (“thank you Sharon” – I was to say that a lot over the next ten days…) towards locks Marbury, Quiosley, Willeymoor, Povey’s, Grindley and Grindley Staircase before making a stop at the services above Grindley Staircase.

The trip went very well. I led on FRILFORD, John and Elizabeth came next on Forest Weaver with Wes and Sharon on Simba Dada bringing up the rear. I took a bit of time talking through lock operation with Elizabeth, although I didn’t really need to. It was more a case of convincing her that what she thought she knew, she did indeed know! At Willeymoor and Povey’s Locks I left them to get on with it and, with Wes and Sharon coming up behind, they obviously did just fine. So it was a happy band of boaters which charged water tanks at Grindley Brook by early afternoon with talk of what to do next.

There is a bench by the 48 hour moorings at Grindley Brook. Wes likes towpath benches as I discovered in Market Harborough. He likes to put a table next to them, and put a couple of chairs out too! A table is best employed supporting consumables of some sort. So it was at Grindley Brook… Left to my own devices I would have been thinking ‘If I get going now I can be most of the way to Ellesmere before bad light stops play…’ so it was good to have Wes there to save me from myself. He’d had a joint of ham simmering on the stove as we came along, apparently, and he had a few cans of cider in his fridge. The sun was shining, we’d made good progress in the morning so why not enjoy the ham with some fresh bread (there is a wonderful lock-side shop at Grindley Brook which should be passed by no-one) and wash it down with a cool, cider? Why not indeed.

It goes almost without saying that our al fresco lunch segued into a siesta which in turn segued into dinner on board Forest Weaver with John and Elizabeth. Had they had plans for a quiet cruise a deux upon the Llangollen Canal? I don’t think so. I hope not because they weren’t getting it! Well, why waste such competent and welcoming hosts? I might be a dyed-in-the-wool singlehander but I know a warm host when I see one and in John and Elizabeth and Wes and Sharon (JEWS, if you will) I had two sets from which to choose!

Next day was a triumph of logistics. JEWS wanted to go into Whitchurch, which lay just round the corner down the Whitchurch Arm to look at the clocks for which the town is rightly famous. I was pressing on to Ellesmere, where we’d all meet that evening. I’d had a call from cousin Christopher and he and Angela wanted to drive to Ellesmere and walk down the canal towpath to meet me coming the other way, have a bit of lunch on board FRILFORD then ride back with me to Ellesmere, with the others catching up en route. And do you know, that’s just how it happened and we all had supper together, this time with Wes and Sharon acting as hosts and Simba Dada the dining room.

I learned something that day; learned it from Wes. It was now mid October and autumn was in full mode. Leaves were falling into the canal. I had not noticed it happening to FRILFORD, but I did notice that John and Elizabeth were struggling to make progress on Forest Weaver. After progress for them became near impossible we pulled over and checked the weedhatch. There was the propeller with nothing fouling it, but it did seem rather twisted and nicked on the blades. “You’ve hit something, I’m afraid,” said I, better call Alvechurch. We’ll get you to Ellesmere and see what happens after that.” John ‘phoned Alvechurch who said they’d meet us in Ellesmere and try and sort something out. With that Wes and Sharon appeared from round the corner. “What you doing?” called Wes, and John and I explained. “No, no – it won’t be that,” replied Wes immediately; “it’ll be leaves round the prop….” “But there aren’t any leaves round the prop,” I retorted, “we’ve looked.” “Not now there aren’t; now that you’ve stopped,” was Wes’ immediate response. “Start her up, put her in gear and see what happens…” I was sceptical, but Wes on the knowledge high ground is a tall chap indeed!

FRILFORD and I moved off and John and Elizabeth on Forest Weaver set off behind me. Well, not ‘set off’ exactly. Expecting to struggle again John gave her full throttle. Forest Weaver lifted her bows and, with a roar, shot forward like the shark from Jaws! Not so much set off as took off. For a moment I thought the whole circus was going to join me on the back of FRILFORD! John snapped the throttle back and we proceeded into Ellesmere in fine style. “Leaves round the prop,” smiled Wes once we were all safely moored in the Ellesmere Branch. “I feel like a fool, again,” said I, “’leaves around the prop’ is a new one on me…!” Anyway ‘leaves around the prop’ became a feature of our continuing travels on the Llangollen Canal, except now we knew to slip our boats into reverse every so often, ‘unwind’ the leaves from the prop, as it were, and carry on.

You never stop learning in this life, and certainly not on the cut.

Next day the weather was mucky – wind, rain and cold. We planned to get a few more miles up the Llangollen and I suggested getting to Lion Quays, a new hotel development near Chirk, on the A5 for those not canal borne. With little prospect of a break in the weather we set off something after noon and got to Lock 20, New Marton Bottom Lock by twenty to three in the afternoon. The rain had stopped and whilst it was still cold and overcast we’d brightened up considerably. Wes and Sharon has slipped behind to get fuel and water, or something, so John and Elizabeth were leading the team, and making a fine job of it. Elizabeth kindly locked me through both New Marton Bottom Lock and New Marton Top Lock (21) a quarter of a mile further on. Thank you Elizabeth.

Dinner that night was in Lion Quays Hotel, with me as host. It cost a lot more than if I’d hosted dinner on board FRILFORD and the others were kind enough to protest at the amount of the bill, but it suited me as it was sort of ‘my turn’! I am still extremely fond of FRILFORD. She has not let me down in any regard and I can honestly say of the other boats I have seen at a sort of price I could afford (i.e. I am not talking about a brand new all-singing-all-dancing 58 footer or larger) I have not seen one I’d sooner own and be on than FRILFORD. However, she doesn’t have a dining area. No problem for me on my own as I am a tray on the lap man anyway. However, it would have been a pleasure to welcome JEWS on board for dinner, but I don’t have that many trays – and anyway the dining bar had been set higher than that by the others and their easy hospitality on board their boats.

The Pontcysyllte Aqueduct beckoned and the next day, with FRILFORD at point this time, we were away from Lion Quays by ten o’clock. Chirk Aqueduct acts as a sort of ‘training aqueduct’ as it has a wide parapet on the side opposite the tow path so one does not get the ‘flying through the air’ feeling one does with the ‘Pont’. There was much marching up and down the towpath and we all got the same sort of pictures – a small convoy of narrowboats manned by broadly smiling happy people. Nice… Then it was through the Chirk Tunnel and on through the wooded bit which I always call Lord of the Rings. The canal runs between two high wooded banks and I am sure there are Nazgûl riding in there. The water is a bit deeper through here so boats move a little easier. Which is good when there are Nazgûl around.

Thereafter is the Whitehouses Tunnel, then the bit of canal which follows Offa’s Dyke path, then under a lift bridge at Froncycyllte (thank you again, Sharon) and there it was again – the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct! I was making my 7th crossing, but it might as well have been my first, for the nervousness I felt. Wes and Sharon had been over the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct way back when, but for John and Elizabeth it was their first time and they brought to it all the enthusiasm and excitement which makes being with them such a pleasure. John was all for jumping onto the roof of Forest Weaver and taking ‘interesting’ pictures! He would have been easily sure-footed, of course, having no fear of the 128 foot drop to the River Dee below, but I was glad he did not get his ’interesting’ pictures for my nerves would not have stood it!

Wes and Sharon brought up the rear on Simba Dada and, true to form, they had some extra people on board. Never one to miss the opportunity of offering an invitation, Wes had made some walkers’ day by actually boating them across the aqueduct! The run up to Llangollen was its usual delightful self and by three in the afternoon we were trying up in the Llangollen Basin.

There is a very good hardware shop in Llangollen. The old sort with loose nails in boxes: that sort of thing. During our 48 hours in Llangollen John got to know the people there really rather well, and between all of them they got what was wanted. At some stage, you see, we all enjoyed (well, I’m not sure how much John enjoyed it and the rest of us made an attempt at looking concerned but actually we all enjoyed it…) – we all enjoyed the John Boland Aquatic Extravaganza!

Quite what happened I don’t know because I was on the forward part of FRILFORD and this all happened down the other end but I heard it! In essence John left the safety of Forest Weaver’s gunnels, or was it FRILFORD’s?, and performed a perfectly-executed ‘collapse’, I understand, into the Llangollen Basin. The beauty of the whole manoeuvre was that his exit was just as swift. Not one to entertain the crowd with pathetic “I’ve-fallen-in-the-water” Goonesque tomfoolery, John effectively reversed the film of his collapse and was immediately standing back on board Forest Weaver before anyone could react. Looking relaxed and nonchalant he was only let down by the fact that he was dripping wet, for none of the waters of the Llangollen Basin has missed him, and he was without his glasses. Pity about that, because instead of falling about laughing the rest of us had to be, genuinely, concerned about the loss of the glasses!

We did the usual thing of peering into the remarkably clear waters of the basin, but John’s glasses are of the delicate frameless type and were not about to give away their new resting place. We also poked about a bit with a boat hook, which was playing to the crowd really because we neither wanted to break the glasses with it, or disturb the now-getting-cloudy waters. Once showered and changed John and Elizabeth went off down town and came back sometime later, after a visit to the hardware shop, with a garden wire rake!

The waters were clear again by now. A gentle carpet of leaves stared up at us from the bottom of the basin, only about 3 feet down at the most. We all aired an opinion as to where the glasses might be and, having reached a consensus, John made a pass with the rake. Nothing. Well, not nothing, actually. I think he retrieved a rusty screwdriver, but it wasn’t fitted with his prescription! Second pass. A few leaves which, when dropped back into the water, stirred things up a bit. We waited a few minutes (‘we’ being the Greek Chorus that was me, Elizabeth, Wes and Sharon…) then John made another pass with the rake. He pulled up a few more leaves, but there was a flash of bright light. Like sighting a darting Kingfisher it was there one moment and gone then next. Then back again…! There sitting atop its pillow of leaves like a regal jewel, were John’s glasses. Damaged? No. Scratched? No. Bent out of shape? No, no, no! They were perfect and in a moment were back in their office on his phizog!

“Anybody want a garden rake? I paid a fiver for it….!” There’s not much call for a garden rake on board a narrowboat so he got no takers from the Greek Chorus, who by now were smiling and congratulating themselves on being friends with such a dynamic and capable chap. Later, and for reasons I will not go into here, John had to go back to the hardware shop. His reasons for going included the tiller bar from Forest Weaver and some discrete drilling, which the hardware shop crew were pleased to do for him. I think the garden rake was repatriated as part of the drilling deal.

Dinner on the first night was on Forest Weaver and on the second night on Simba Dada. I was doing very well on the dining front, enjoying a level of culinary expertise not usually seen on FRILFORD!

Before heading for home the party, being JEWS and me, walked to the Horseshoe Falls, the horseshoe-shaped (no, really..!) weir which was built on the River Dee at the head of the Llangollen Canal to provide it with water, as it does to this day. The place looks placid but a quick look at a kayaking website will tell you that the place can be a killer. At anything other than very low water the ‘towback’ is lethal, apparently, and can drag you into the centre of the horseshoe curve and hold you there. Wow – to us on that cool October day it looked delightful; powerful no doubt, but delightful, and the whole scene was set off perfectly by the fly-fisherman casting in the Dee above the falls, standing up to his chest in water.

On the journey back (Pontcysyllte Aqueduct transit number 8 for me!) we sailed past Lion Quays and made for the welcome of the Jack Mytton Pub. In truth, for I think it was a half-term of sorts (do kids actually go to school these days? To this non-parent it seems it is always half-term!), the voyage took some time. Certainly I was held at both Lock 21 (New Marton Top Lock) and Lock 20 (ditto Bottom Lock) by various hire boats. Half an hour I waited to lock through 21 and at 20 I came across a young family on a 60 footer who clearly had no experience. They’d just picked the boat up and were heading for they knew not where, and it was by now almost dark. I was pleased to help them lock through and suggested to them they pull over between the locks and spend the night there. The towpath is piled at that point and I knew they’d be safe. As I locked myself through 20 (they offered to help which was good of them, but they had plenty to content with) they made themselves fast on the towpath about 100 yards further on.

By the time I got to Jack Mytton it was dark but Wes and John were there to help me tie up. In no time we were in the pub having a very good meal. The place has changed hands now and I have not been there under the new ownership but the word is it is yet better!

We got back to Ellesmere the next day and did the sort of domestic things one does when making a ‘landfall’ in a town – do some washing, do some shopping, buy some fuel, get a pumpout and generally got ready for the next phase. The next phase was to cruise down the seven miles of the Montgomery Canal and back.

I make no secret of my admiration for the British Waterways people with whom one actually deals. To get down the Montgomery Canal one has to book and one has to give them 48 hours notice. I phoned to book but could only give them 24 hours notice. A charming chap on the telephone accepted the booking and it was only the next day that Colin, the British Waterways lockkeeper at Frankton Junction, where the Montgomery joins the Llangollen, had a bit of a moan because short notices messes his traffic flow plans about a bit. Still, he’s a decent chap and I’ve been pleased to slip him the odd beer by way of thanks for his help in the past, so the moaning was as of nothing.

Waterscape.com, British Waterways’s own website, tells us this: The Montgomery Canal, derelict for many years, is now being reborn as a cruiseway through the picturesque Welsh Marches. From its junction with the Llangollen Canal at Welsh Frankton, the Montgomery meanders southwards for 35 miles towards Newtown. It is almost entirely rural - the largest settlement being the market town of Welshpool. The canal is a true haven for wildlife and tranquillity with many Sites of Special Scientific Interest along the way. At present, only certain sections are navigable by boat, but the canal offers many opportunities for the walker or fisherman. More than half of this rural waterway is now in water.

Could not have said it better myself, which is why I did not try. In truth the day our little convoy went down the weather was pretty rough. At that stage, however, we had not experienced the weather coming back! Wind? – don’t talk to me about wind….! Frankton Junction to the present end of the navigation at the top of the Montgomery canal is about seven miles. We set off from Ellesmere, so by the time we were tied up at Maesbury on the Montgomery, next to the Navigation Inn, we’d done close to ten miles. There are various locks to negotiate: the staircase and next three locks at Frankton, then the new Graham Palmer Lock, which commemorates a pioneer of canal restoration, then the three Aston Locks and you are there. In truth there is another three quarters of a mile and a lift bridge to negotiate to get to the winding hole at the present bottom of the navigation, but we kept that for the next day.

The Navigation Inn in Maesbury is a curious thing. It gets rave reviews from Colin the Lockie but the two times I have been there it has not really been open. In truth the first time I was there it was open but I was not ready to go in. When, at about ten p.m., I thought I’d stroll in for a nightcap I discovered it had closed at nine! The day JEWS and I were there it wasn’t open at all! A board outside gives opening times and when the restaurant is open and when for lunch or dinner but I think that one would have to stake the place out to be sure of actually enjoying a meal there. However, I fancy if one can get the timing right one would indeed enjoy a meal there – or just a few drinks, perhaps. What little I saw of it, it was all old beams, open fires and archetypal smiling comely barmaid. I shall try again sometime.

We were not let down, however. Elizabeth has the capacity to rustle up a meal at a moment’s notice and put on a fine spread. John always has a nice drop of something not far from his elbow so it was to Forest Weaver we went that night for our evening repast. Had John and Elizabeth been mysteriously indisposed Wes and Sharon display exactly the same qualities! On FRILFORD they’d get a can of tomato soup in a shared mug, and a pork pie cut into five pieces – all served on one tray!

Of the voyage back to Ellesmere, from Maesbury, let us say no more than it rained and the wind blew. Hard. My logbook tells me that it was not raining all the time, but that is how I remember it.

After Ellesmere our voyaging was of the ‘return trip’ nature, for Forest Weaver had to be back at base in a couple of day’s time. On our penultimate cruising day together John and Elizabeth set off with Wes and Sharon not far behind. I was messing about getting water and whatnot so was a bit behind them. I saw them later on, moored at the Prees Branch Junction, having lunch apparently. I did not stop – I was on a mission. I was cooking dinner that night! At Grindley Brook, where we’d had such a happy lunch-into-dinner occasion the previous week, on our way up.

I got to Grindley Brook an hour or so before they did and got dinner on. A pasta bake. I can’t remember where I first came across a pasta bake, but it is easy to do, and interestingly variable depending on what one puts in it! I got the table out on FRILFORD, for I do have one – it came with the boat - but try as I might I could not arrange it on board in such a way that people could sit round it comfortably.

John and Elizabeth arrived on Forest Weaver and moored just behind me, so I did a deal with them and ‘hired’ their dining area! Wes and Sharon arrived in good time for a pre-prandial drink so the Adrian Rayson-hosted dinner actually took place on Forest Weaver! John kindly insisted that dinner the following night would be back at the Dusty Miller in Wrenbury and that it was on him. We had good reason, therefore, to get going in the morning!

Grindley Brook Staircase Locks were rather busy and for the first time in my experience we were delayed significantly. It didn’t matter a fig but I notice from my logbook that we queued for the top lock for an hour and a half. After that we were away. The weather was better than it had been of late and the locks more or less fell our way as there were other boaters going in both directions.

There is a pub called the Willeymoor Arms at Willeymoor Lock. As I came round the corner from Povey’s Lock just above it, there was Sharon waiting to lock me through. John and Elizabeth had gone ahead on Forest Weaver, but Simba Dada seemed to be moored above the lock. “I’ll lock you through then you tie up below the lock and join us – Wes’s just getting some pints in!”

We sat in the sunshine enjoying a couple of pints. Unable to resist myself I had a windlass with me and when the next hire boat came to the lock Wes and I were pleased to help - him on the gates, me and my windlass on the paddles. There was something very ‘easy’ about that hour in the sunshine. Easy chat, easy bonhomie with each other and the passing boaters, and an easiness about offering, and having accepted, a little bit of help.

Dinner that night in the Dusty Miller was a joy with tall stories being told of the last two weeks and none loosing anything in the telling. Wes had a laptop with him and we had an instant picture show of some of what we’d done. It was good. True to his word John shunned all our attempts to ‘chip in’ and the happy atmosphere of the Dusty Miller, which I can recommend, pervaded us all.

In no time it was early the next day on the dock at Alvechurch and the boating chattels and vittles of John and Elizabeth’s holiday were being divided between Simba Dada and FRILFORD. They got cheese and some pasta; I got loo rolls and most of a bottle of whisky. I got the better deal!

Then, suddenly, it was hugs and kisses all round and they, JEWS, John and Elizabeth, Wes and Sharon, were gone. I turned away and noticed a boat making ready to leave, with a crewmember striding toward the Wrenbury Lift Bridge. I ran back to FRILFORD, started her quickly and threw her into gear. “Can I follow you through, please?” I called out, “I am on my own…”

And I was. It felt… well, good, I suppose. But it felt a bit lonely.

With no need to look aft I kept going, not stopping until I got back to the moorings above Grindley Brook some hours later. By then it was ‘business as usual’ and I ate something that needed ‘finishing up’ from the back of the fridge. I raised a glass in the general direction of Absent Friends and turned in for the night, as you do when you’re singlehanded.