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

 

CHAPTER THREE - "Lechlade Ho!"

March 2005

(The pictures were taken in Lechlade, not en route, and thus are of Lechlade!)

So to Lechlade... My good friend Ted had given me a logbook for the boat. It is actually meant as a sailing logbook and has columns in it for all sorts of course, compass, distance, power, wind, leeway, baro etc etc etc data, a lot of which is not relevant to a narrowboat. However, there is enough there that can be adapted and it has blank right-hand pages which can be used for 'free expression'! It is a good discipline to have a logbook and as I sit at my computer towards the end of March to write this account, I am referring to it. This limits my opportunities for 'extemporization' but might tie some of my account to traces of the truth!

28th February - 1000 hrs. My logbook says 'Engine on. Slipped mooring at 1015 hrs. 1/4 inch of ice in the marina. Breaking through'. In reality this was quite an incident! The ice was thicker than 1/4 inch in places and broke in large pieces which moved above and below other ice, making layers. The hull of my boat has a 10mm steel bottom place and 6mm side plating so there I was not concerned about damaging the hull, but I did wonder a bit about my new paintwork. I backed into the ice but realised I had to turn around and go forward, thus protecting the rudder and propeller, which, when going backwards, were rather exposed. The ice trapped the boat and moved her this way and that. I did not have a great deal of control but managed to turn round and set off forwards. Directional stability was a bit compromised but I moved slowly and steadily towards the marina entrance. With a final cracking and pushing I was free of both the marina and the ice, was out in the River Thames and turned the bows towards Abingdon and the river beyond. I need not have worried about the paintwork. Not a scratch. I was able to see that when I looked at it back on Father's mooring. What? Back on Father's mooring?

A few minutes after leaving I turned around in the Thames, went back into the marina, pushed through the ice once again, and got back onto Father's mooring, whence I came! Why? Forgot my GPS...

A Global Positional System on a narrowboat navigating on the river? Why, for heaven's sake? The belligerent answer is because I want one on the boat. A better answer is that, whilst I do not need it to navigate, it gives me my speed over the ground, my latitude and longitude and, if I put the lock positions into the thing as waypoints and create a route using the lock waypoints I can get a range and bearing to the next lock whilst I am going along. The GPS works in straight lines without consideration of the meanderings of the river, so I enjoy watching the bearing needle swinging around as the river, and thus the boat and me, particularly in the Upper Reaches of the Thames, meander around. At any given moment we can either be going roughly in the direction of the next lock, directly away from the next lock, or somewhere in between. I like following that. On another page of the GPS I get a rolling map and I can see that just over there, a mile or two away perhaps, is Burcott, or Longworth, or Faringdon, or wherever. Yes, I have that on a paper chart as well, but we chaps like a gadget and the GPS is a great gadget.

So I wanted my GPS with me.

I got to Abingdon Lock at 1125 hrs and got through without incident. My logbook says, amongst other things, 'very cold'. It was to remain 'very cold' all day. One thing I did learn was that Eynsham Lock, where I might reasonably expect to be about 1615 hrs, was closed for a couple of days to allow dredging. This was not advertised and was a local stoppage. This was going to mess the plan up a bit but Roger, the lock-keeper at Abingdon phoned through to discover that Sarah was at Eynsham Lock. The gist of their conversation was that I should get up there in good time and see what the situation is. It might be possible to get through. I like Sarah and pressed on in hope…!

Got to and through the mighty Sandford Lock (biggest on the Thames apart from Teddington…) at 1220 hrs and then set off to Iffley Lock with a view to getting there before 1300 hrs when lock-keepers go off for lunch in the quiet season. I got there at 1255 hrs and found a very affable lock-keeper painting bollards (that maintenance thing I mentioned in Chapter 2). There was ice in the entrance to the lock and a young woman and her companion standing by the lock gates smiled at me as I pushed through the ice and said "Just like the Titanic!"
"I bloody well hope not...!" I replied and we all chuckled. I did not get sunk.

After Iffley Lock I chugged past the University Boathouses, under Folly Bridge, through Oxpens, past Osney Marina to Osney Lock. I got there at 1335 hrs and knew the lock-keeper was at lunch. However there was much going on in the lock. Some contractors where working on the stonework and a cranky but sturdy old work barge was in the lock. It looked to me as if I would not be able to get through, but the contractors were friendly enough and pulled the barge to the side the lock.
"You on a narrowboat?" they asked.
"Yes, I am"
"Right," they responded, "bring her in. We've got the power on so we'll sort the lock out. You'll be able to squeeze in beside us." And that's what we did. It was a bit of a squeeze but I managed to get in beside them without any banging about and the fit was tight enough that I did not bother to run any lines to the lock bollards. The contractors opened the lock sluices and they, the work barge, my narrowboat and me rose to meet Osney village on the other side.
"Sorry to delay you," I said, because all work stopped whilst I was with them.
"No trouble," they said, "we'll finish for the day in another hour; we'll start clearing up soon! When are you back?"
"Couple of days," I told them.
"We'll still be here. See you then." They seemed happy and I was grateful for their help and friendly co-operation, and for another one of the sort of pleasant little exchanges which seem common on the river but just don't seem to happen off the water anymore.

I slipped quietly under Osney Bridge (a notorious low bridge at Osney in Oxford which is a defining mark on the River Thames. Big boats simply can't get under it and are thus denied the pleasures of the upper Thames, which are delightful. It is very much part of the specification of a riverboat as to whether it will "...go under Osney Bridge..." or not. My narrowboat does it comfortably - i.e. with about 6 inches to spare (!). Father's Seamaster 813 cabin cruiser does it too - but with about 3 inches to spare, which always causes the heart to thump a bit however often one passes under it, and that only after dropping the mast, the windscreen and side screens. And when I say so many "inches to spare" I am referring to the boat. If one is damned fool enough to stand up straight on the approach the bridge would smack you right in the upper chest. It is not enough to duck your head - you have to crouch down, and stay down until well clear. I know: I still have a bump on my head from when I went for the "wow - that was exciting.." post-bridge exclamation a little early one time!) – where was I? Ah, yes, slipping under Osney Bridge… I slipped quietly under Osney Bridge and on to Port Meadow.

Port Meadow is common land and has been since the dawn of history. There are common grazing rights for the meadow and to this day horses and cattle graze its many hundreds of acres. In the past, and still today I imagine if we ever get the winters, Port Meadow was a great site for skating. It floods in places in the winter and makes a wonderful place to skate. I’ve done it myself; indeed I could have killed my brother out there one year! I was too young to realise that it was bloody irresponsible to suggest skating with my toddler brother on my shoulders, given my almost complete lack of skating prowess, and my brother, Will, as now, knew only complete adoration for his older, wiser and altogether more marvellous brother and so was blinded to the danger. Yes, I hoisted him on my shoulders and, yes, I fell – and thus so did he. I can’t remember the outcome but we have both turned out just about okay so I imagine nothing too serious happened that day.

None of these thoughts and memories passed through my mind as I steamed past Port Meadow on 28th February for my mind was full of thoughts of “Bugger, this is bloody cold. Looks like snow. No – it is snow and it is blowing horizontally across the river straight at me. All of it!” For it was indeed snowing horizontally. My logbook just says ‘Port Meadow – bit of snow. V. cold’. Very understated; I remember it as more extreme than that!

The lock-keeper at Godstow Lock is a quiet chap who seems to keep slightly different hours to others. I have been there several times when he does not seem to be there when you’d expect him to be there and is there when you’d think he might not be there. He wasn’t there when I arrived this day. I tied up at the lay-by berth and, seeking a way of warming up, threw myself into the business of winding the lock sluices shut and the gates open etc. with gusto. It worked well on all counts. I did enough to warm up and the lock-keeper, whose name plate above the door reads “D. Free” I recall (when he’s not there I smile to myself and say ‘seems he’s got free again…’ to myself), turned up to finish the job using his hydraulic power just about the point when I was thinking it was starting to feel like real work.

I got to Kings Lock about half an hour later; it is not far from Godstow. Kings Lock is the first of the Upper Thames locks which has beams and is hand operated (even by the lock-keepers). From Kings Lock to St Johns Lock at Lechlade all the locks are like this. I always feel a sense of getting to a different place once one gets to and through Kings Lock. Indeed the River Thames itself takes on a new character; smaller, much more intimate and increasingly meandering. The lock-keeper at King Lock is, in my experience, always on the phone, and he was this day. Also, following an earlier conversation we had about managing with only one gate open, only opens one gate when I appear. Lock gates on the River Thames are of a size that if one only opens one there is room enough for a traditional narrowboat, such as mine, with a beam of 6ft 10ins to pass through. There is not a lot of space but there is enough. Several other lock-keepers have asked me the question ‘can you manage to get through with only one gate open?’ to which I always give the same reply: ‘We are about to find out!’

Anyway, this time the lock-keeper was on the phone to Sarah at Eynsham Lock. The message was that dredging had ended for the day and if I could get myself to Eynsham Lock by 1600 hrs (when lock-keepers finish manning the locks in the winter months) she’d lock me through.

It was still snowing as I set off for Eynsham. I did not push too hard; my boat is not fast and opening the throttle will get you a more urgent engine sound and more fuel consumption, but it will only get you about another half a knot of boat speed upstream. I did open up a bit and was surprised to find I got nearly a knot of extra boat speed. I think the river was rather slack that day. Eynsham Lock hove into view at 1550 hrs and I tied up therein five minutes later. True to her word Sarah was there and locked me through. An Environment Agency launch driver was there and helped her. It was still snowing!

I talked to Sarah and decided that I’d spend the night on the moorings at Eynsham Lock. “Do,” she said, “you need to warm up! Help yourself to the water, which is on, and I can‘t always say that…and maybe I’ll see you in the morning.”

I tied up in the shadow of Swinford Bridge, which is at Eynsham Lock, at 1615 hrs. I lit the fire and made a cup of tea. I was soon warm, very warm for the problem – if it is a problem – is to get rid of the heat in the boat, not to keep it, once the fire is burning! Tea soon gave way to whisky and I made something to eat (my logbook does not record what I ate and I can’t remember – that’s whisky for you!). According to my logbook I was in bed by 2200 hrs. The final entry for that day is 'All Well' which is a small phrase I picked up from my shipping days. Then we gave an itinerary for a ship we'd end it with the letters AGW, which stands for 'all going well', which I think is a reasonable caveat when dealing with ships at sea. My putting ‘all well’ at the end of a page in my logbook indicates that all is well and, usually, that all has been well during the day (the rigours of bad weather do not count as detrimental boat operations!). It is not always the case. Not too many pages further on in my logbook is a page which ends with the words 'Bit rattled - all a learning experience. GET BOW LINE ON! Let's see what tomorrow brings. Bloody Awful day!'

See - the words 'All Well' do not always appear at the end of my logbook pages...!

Right – must get on… According to MSWord I have used some 2462 words to get to Swinford Bridge on the way up the Thames. So much verbiage. Are you still with me?

Let’s get on. The next day started bright and clear. I walked back to the lock and had a word with Sarah then started FRILFORD’s engine at 0945 hrs. I got off the mooring at 1000 hrs and headed for Oxford Cruisers for diesel fuel and slurry tank pump-out (don’t ask!). At 1010 hrs I slipped rather neatly onto the fuel berth at Oxford Cruisers. I was rather pleased with the manoeuvre; I want to be consistently good at handling my boat.
“You did that well,” was the comment made by the lad who appeared, which was reassuring. Less reassuring was his next comment. “I don’t think we’ve got any diesel. We’re waiting for a delivery! Let’s turn on the pump and see what happens.” What happened was 17 litres dribbled out into my fuel tank and that was it. £6.80 thank you very much! Then round to the pump-out station. The hose wasn’t sucking too well and the whole operations seemed to take rather a long time. I’m not sure how much for the tank seemed to fill up again rather quickly. No – don’t ask! During the pump-out grey clouds rolled over, the wind got up and suddenly freezing rain was falling in rods. Horizontal rods. What is it with the weather these days that it likes to come in horizontally?

Whist at Oxford Cruisers I called the woman who was to make the curtains for my boat. She could only see me on Saturday morning. It was already Tuesday so my gentle trip to Lechlade and back became a bit of a time trial. Exactly what narrowboating is not supposed to be about!

I got away from Oxford Cruisers at 1110 hrs and straight away went into Pinkhill Lock. It was unattended so I buckled down and did it myself. In truth it was pretty straightforward and I was away from there in about twenty minutes.

The ‘noon position’ entry in my logbook says 'Bablock Hythe Caravan Site - HELL ON EARTH'. Bablock Hythe is the site of an ancient ferry – there still is a ferry there of sorts – but for many years it has been the location for a large mobile home caravan site. There are masses of them and, I’m afraid, I think they, and the whole endeavour, are ghastly.

I reached Northmoor Lock at 1245 hrs. It was still raining. At 1330 hrs I passed under Newbridge and thus passed the Maybush and Rose Revived pubs. It was still raining and the word 'COLD' appears in my logbook, in capitals, at this point.

The river at this point gets quite a bit narrower and bends about a bit. I don’t think there had been any boats up there since last year because as I came round various corners the river was full of Swans and Canada Geese floating about doing whatever they do pre-spring. They were startled, highly vocal and alarmed when I appeared! It was still raining and, although I was not wet, my hands were. And cold. Very cold. When sailing round the world on the British Steel Challenge in 1992-93 we had all sorts of very good kit, and I wear on FRILFORD to this day. So I do not get cold when on board. However, the one piece of kit we the crew could not get right, and I think I can say this of all of us, was gloves. Whatever we wore was a compromise. Flexible ‘fingered gloves were great for digital dexterity when handling ropes, holding winch handles, operating winches etc. but were hopeless for keeping hands warm and dry. Big fat mits, probably with other gloves inside them, were great for keeping the hands warm, but they were useless for handling anything and, very importantly, for holding onto anything for safety when the yacht bucked and banged in the big seas. So it is on FRILFORD. My gloves get wet, my hands get cold and the pain starts to eat into my enjoyment.

I got to Shifford Lock at 1415 hrs. I stopped on the layby berth and went down below to get a different pair of gloves, the ones I was wearing being sodden and very cold. I enjoyed this moment’s respite and was very pleased to discover on going back on deck that the lock-keeper had seen me on the layby berth and had opened the lock gates for me. The lock is a surprisingly deep one and I chatted with the very pleasant lock-keeper, notwithstanding the fact the rain was falling steadily and the temperature was staggering about the zero mark.

My next logbook entry reads '1415-1500 hrs R. Thames very twisting and turning. Progress v. slow. Cold + wet but don’t care…!'

1515 hrs saw me passing under Tadpole Bridge and past The Trout pub. A good eating place, I understand, but I have not been there.

1530 hrs saw me at Rushey Lock where I chatted with a very pleasant lock-keeper (in truth most of the lock-keepers are pleasant…) who told me he used to have a 70 ft narrowboat on the Grand Union Canal. It was still raining and was still very cold. The lock-keeper at Rushey telephoned ahead to Radcot Lock to discover that the Radcot lock-keeper would be off duty by the time I got there, but that, since he now knew I was coming, he’d leave the bottom gates open for me.

Logbook: '1530-1600 hrs R. Thames twisting again. Ah well – who cares? All well.'

1615 hrs – Radcot Lock. As I arrived the lock-keeper was preparing to go. He kindly worked the bottom of the lock; I worked the top after he’d gone. Before he left he suggested I stop at Radcot Bridge. This seemed like a plan but a small voice in my head suggested to me that I might not do that. The small voice, it turned out, was a wise one!

I got to Radcot Bridge at 1655 hrs. My logbook reads '1655 – Radcot Bridge. Ghastly place. Press on! Rain finally stopped. Weather clearing from the west. Sunset?' I forget now why I thought Radcot Bridge quite so ghastly. I had had a long, wet, day and Radcot Bridge, though itself an attractive small brick-built bridge on a sharp bend in the river (thus causing a slight quickening of the heart beat – particularly at the height of the season when boats sometimes have a bit of a ‘coming together’), is surrounded by some rather ordinary boats on rather shabby moorings which may or may not be official, and the pub next to the bridge, which I am sure is the most marvellous place staffed by the most charming and helpful people on planet earth, does not look appetising from the river. Or it didn’t that afternoon. I kept going. I also kept going because, in fine Rayson tradition, once I am on some sort of a journey it is difficulty to get me to stop. The idea of stopping for lunch when on a long car journey, for instance, is anathema to me. Stop? We’ll stop when we get there….! So it was I kept going, but I was aware of the Rayson syndrome kicking in, and another, not so small, voice in my head was reminding me that I did not want to be navigating in the dark on a stretch of the river I do not know at all, looking for a mooring the existence of which I did not know.

At 1715 hrs I was at Grafton Lock and it was on the approach to the layby berth that the shape of the rest of the day was set – very nicely as it turned out! As I approached the layby berth I passed a host of boats on the hard in a field. They were jacked up on barrels where, I imagine, they’d been for the winter. I presume this was a local farmer making some use of otherwise almost useless land with an arrangement with a local marina. Whatever. Anyway there was a bloke working on one of the boats. I was hardly moving at this point so we shouted pleasantries to each other.
“How far are you going?” he asked.
“I’ll let through the lock, then I’ll look for somewhere to stop," was my reply.
“Go on for about another twenty minutes and you’ll see the sign for The Plough at Kelmscott. Tie up at their moorings, which are good, and walk into the village for a drink.”
“Right,” I replied, that’s what I’ll do – thanks…”

And that’s what I did. The plan got the endorsement from The Man Upstairs in that as I came out of Grafton Lock the clouds parted and for a few moments, and it really was only for a few moments, FRILFORD, me and the beautiful countryside around us, were bathed in bright, low and attractive sunlight. After such a long wet and cold day it was an encouraging and uplifting sign and I was grateful for it.

I was very glad to find The Plough moorings as I was ready to stop. They were indeed good, save that they were under a few trees in which a well-established rookery provided a loud background to proceedings as the residents ‘chatted’ amongst themselves. Ah well - that’s nature for you! We’re better off with it than without it, and we have to do without so much of it these days... Which is our fault, of course. I got to the moorings at 1745 hrs and by 6 o’clock (1800 hrs of course but that is too dry for the drinking hour!) – the right time to think of a drink (I have a rule that I do not have a drink until at least 6 o’clock. Most of the time I stick to it! There is a school of thought that says the time is 5 o’clock on a weekend, but I usually wait until 6 o’clock. Don’t know why. I suppose it is to inject a bit of discipline into the process. Otherwise, is the ghastly prospect of gin on one’s cornflakes at 8 in the morning far away? Blimey – I hope so…!) – by 6 o’clock I was ready for a drink! The chap I’d talked to at Grafton Lock said it was a short walk to The Plough. The sign at the moorings said to follow the track 800 yards through the village. 800 yards? That’s not a walk – that’s a trek! Well, I was minded to do it because I was on their moorings.

800 yards turned out to be about 250 yards, which was pleasing! Kelmscott is a very pleasant village, a National Trust village apparently, and is graced with Kelmscott Manor, which was the home of William Morris, founder of the Arts & Crafts Movement. The Plough is a good pub. At least I think it is. I got through the door, the bar was immediately there and I did not move from the corner of said bar for a bit of time!

The barmaid was very pleasant and I chatted with a gentle couple who’d bought a mobile home a few villages away but who liked The Plough so much they used it as their local. But the thing that really drew me to the place, and to the barmaid, is that when I ordered a large scotch whisky she charged me £1.60 for it. £1.60 – that can’t be right can it? I don’t know as I don’t buy scotch in a pub very often. Anyway, it seemed like a deal to me so I had another large one. And another…. And, er, another! Large ones this is…

I got back to the boat at about quarter to nine (okay, okay - 2045 hrs but we've dispensed with all the boaty stuff now - we're drinking whisky in The Plough now... or we have been!) and had some supper. I ate potatoes.
“So what?” you ask. I like potatoes.
“So what?” you ask again! Well, I have not eaten any potatoes since my operation as they are/were deemed to be a bit stodgy and difficult to swallow. Anyway, I boiled some that night and ate them with sausages. It was all very good. My logbook records “Cassandra Wilson on the stereo. All well.” It was well – very well. Not just because of the double scotches. It had been a long wet, cold day and the evening had been very pleasant. All in all it had been a great day!

Logbook again: '0630 hrs – Rookery above in good voice! Awake! 0700 hrs Today programme on Radio 4! Breakfast…'

I got the engine going at 0950 hrs and was off the mooring at 1005 hrs. I’d have gone earlier but it was snowing. Snowing! Thank the Lord my boat is snug and warm down below. Indeed I have trouble getting rid of the heat rather than finding it when the stove is on, but I think I've mentioned that already. Flaubert is quoted as saying something to the effect that 'a piece of writing, like a head of hair, benefits from much grooming.' I have to say that I have not 'subbed' this much at all and as for grooming, it has had none. In truth it could probably do with a No. 1 navy issue crewcut haircut, but there we are. When I publish it as a book (A book? Surely not a book... Not a whole book of this stuff. What sort of a book would that be? An unpublished one at best!) someone will sort it out. When it will be a pamphlet rather than a book!

I got to Buscott Lock at 1025 hrs. It was cold, grey and overcast. A cheery lock-keeper said “Only 20 minutes from here to Lechlade – just at the end of that tree line over there, in fact.” That was good of him. In fact I was in good shape but I think he assumed I was having a bit of a grim time. Maybe I looked as though I was having a grim time!

St. John’s Lock (the first lock on the River Thames) hove into view at 1120 hrs. The lock-keeper, true to form, was a bit of a character. I talked to him about my parents coming to Lechlade on their boat several times. He asked me for their names and for the name of the boat. I told him, of course, and he said ”I remember them!” Now then; one can decide to go with this or be a bit cynical. He might say that to everyone. I chose to believe him.

1145 hrs found me ‘slow steaming’ past Riverside Park in Lechlade taking a look. There was nowhere to moor, as I expected, which is why I was just 'taking a look', so I went back to the place I’d planned to moor anyway – the left hand river bank just downstream of Ha’penny Bridge in Lechlade. The place where my parents always moored, in fact.

By 1205 hrs I was moored safely, having first turned round to face upstream – a sensible convention on the river as one has so much more control when facing up-stream: stopping is much easier for a start! – and at 1210 hrs I turned off the engine. Lechlade at last...

I stepped ashore to discover I was moored in the dog sh*t capital of the world! I looked around me. My mooring place was about 40 yards from the bridge and the ‘wicket gate’ through which dog owners come to walk their charges in the vast meadow which is the side of the river at this point. I could imagine what happens and later had my imaginings confirmed by more than one dog/owner combination. They come over the bridge and through the gate with the dog on a lead. Then, immediately in the safety of the meadow, the dog is let off the lead. It runs forward in exuberance and excitement and, it seems, gets about forty yards before its bowels say “Oy – we want to sort ourselves out. Stop running about and get evacuating!"

I went into town, bought a small shovel and cleaned up the place. Aaaaaagggghhh! Horrible. Can you do that little plastic bag thing when you take a dog for a walk? Really? I can’t. I mean I do, but I retch every time…

Enough, enough. I was in Lechlade and the crack was good, as the Irish have it. In the afternoon it snowed, then the weather cleared to bright blue skies, then it snowed again, then it cleared again. Felicity, my sister, came over with her dogs (no, they didn’t! Well, they did – but in a different place. Such good dogs!) and we walked them to St. John’s Lock and back. We had a couple of drinks before she returned home to Box, near Minchinhampton. She is very supportive of me, my boat and my endeavours. I love her for it and am very appreciative.

My logbook says “Supper and bed by 2030 hrs. All well!” And it was.

Not many pictures of all this. The weather was just too bloody awful all the way from Abingdon. A few of the few I took in Lechlade are here. This was to be an account of Lechlade and back to Abingdon, but after the thick end of 5500 words just to get to Lechlade I think I shall make the return passage another chapter.

Thank you if you are still with me...