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


CHAPTER FOUR - "Downstream Back to Abingdon"

I set off to return to Abingdon from Lechlade on the morning of Thursday 3rd March. I had to be back in Abingdon by 0930 hrs on Saturday 5th March at the latest in order I could meet Mrs. Redwood, the woman who was to make new curtains for the boat.

3rd March was a cold day. Reasonably clear, with bright sun shining out of a blue sky and patchwork of big clouds; but cold. Damned cold. Anyway, I got the engine on just after 0800 hrs and slipped my Lechlade mooring. The lock-keeper at St. John’s Lock said he’d be on duty from 0900 hrs but I could help myself through the lock before that. I got there at 0820 hrs and worked the lock myself. I took the opportunity to take some pictures of FRILFORD in the lock, it being the first on the River Thames. I had in mind that I’d take another picture of her in Teddington Lock, it being the last lock on the River Thames. In reality when I went though Teddington Lock over a month later it was in foul weather, rain and tricky wind, and no photographs were taken.

Going back to Abingdon I was going downstream, of course. Downstream navigation can be a bit tricky. Upstream one can use the stream to one’s advantage. Not least one can come to a complete stop. Also one can ‘ferry glide’ a boat; that is one balances the flow of the stream with the engine so a boat is virtually stopped in the water, then one can manipulate the tiller to get the boat to drift sideways. Useful when coming alongside something. Not for nothing are most boats tied up facing upstream on a river. Downstream none of this applies. If the stream is running with some force it can be genuinely difficult to stop to pick up a mooring or to come alongside a lock lay-by berth etc.

So it was for me. There was not much water in the Upper Thames when I was there in early March. Indeed, in a normal year I would not have been there at all. In a normal year the river levels would have been much higher, the stream much stronger, the weirs open with a strong flow pouring over them, and the lock-keepers would have had the red ‘Caution Strong Stream’ boards up. When the red boards are up it is strongly recommended that one does not navigate on the river. Indeed the lock-keepers will tell you as much and give you a card repeating the warning in print. On my trip to Lechlade and back several lock-keepers commented that they had not really had red boards up all winter and more than one commented that they’d only seen water conditions like there had been over the winter once in their lock-keeping careers, over forty years in one lock-keeper’s case. That year was 1976, the year of the great summer drought.

Anyway – let’s not get carried away. This is an account (perhaps brief this time) of my return to Abingdon, so I’ll get on with it!

I got to the next lock, Buscot Lock, at 0900 hrs just as the lock-keeper got there. I talk about upstream and downstream navigation above because it was at Buscot Lock that I first experienced a bit of trouble getting onto the lay-by berth. The wind was blowing me off the berth and the stream was carrying me past it. As I worked throttle and tiller to get the boat to jumping off distance from the berth, and made only an average job of it, my mobile phone rang. I let it ring…

Having gone through the lock I gave the phone my attention. They can be so insistent when someone has left a message. Mine rings me about every minute for several minutes before then sending me a text message to tell me I have a message. Okay, okay – I’m busy for Chris’ sakes…! It was Father’s message and he sounded a bit peeved. “Well, it’s nine o’clock and I can’t seem to get you. I’d’ve thought you’d be on the boat, but there we are. Perhaps you’ll ring me when you get a chance….” I rang him back to explain that I was ‘fighting with a lock’ (my usual catch-all expression to say I was busy with boat handling when he called) and that I could not get to the phone. Anyway, we had a chat about progress and what he was up to. Clearly he is going to track my progress pretty closely when I am on the canals, which is very nice, of course. Indeed he and I chose a book for him to buy, which he did buy, which is an atlas of the UK canals with useful local information. As I write this in mid April whilst sitting on the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal I have already had a conversation with him about where I am and waited whilst he pored over his canal atlas, found, eventually (!), my location and read to me bit of useful information from its pages! Good stuff.

I passed the moorings for The Plough at Kelmscott at 0935 hrs and wished I could stop there again and walk into the village for coffee (yeah…!) at the pub. However, this time I had no time. I hailed the rooks who were, again, in full discussion about something. Do they ever relax? Perhaps there are no rook cinemas (I assume there are not – are there..?!) because they would talk the whole way through the films!

By 1030 hrs I was at Grafton Lock, the lock where, on my way up, I’d talked to the man about The Plough moorings and God had smiled on my venture with a shaft of sunlight through the clouds. Today I talked with a very pleasant lock-keeper who spoke of local otters with great enthusiasm. Indeed as I left the lock he pointed to smearings of what looked like mud on the tail lock gates. “Otter dung…Big dog otter. That’s a lot….!” I nodded seriously and tried to look knowledgeable. I know nothing about otters, I’m afraid. Certainly not enough to distinguish their ‘dung’ (I’m sure he called it something else but I’m damned if I can remember what – there’s a question for Brain of Britain! Imagine Robert Robinson having a go with that one – “Mrs. Simpkins, your go: give me the proper name for what I shall call ‘otter dung’…. No? Anyone else – Mr. Polkinhorne?, Mr. Travers; Miss Pickles, is this not something you know….? Well, I’ll have to tell you – it’s ‘otter……..’ ,” but then what would he say?) from river mud, but, actually of course, having been shown it I was glad to have been shown it.

By 1110 hrs I was at Radcot Lock and had a pleasant conversation with the lock-keeper about rope handling singlehanded on a narrowboat. He’d done a lot of singlehanded navigation and came up with a couple of good idea, for which I am grateful. Rushey Lock hove into view at 1140 hrs. The lock-keeper there was the chap who’d been about to leave Radcot Lock on my way up. He seemed in a rather serious mood and we had no repartee at all. The wind was tricky and the boat moved about all over the lock, even when tied to the bollards. The lock-keeper frowned a lot although I don’t think there was anything of a problem, given I was the only one in the lock. Admittedly, had there been others in the lock I would have had to sort myself out a bit better but as it was I thought I was alright. He will have known better than me, but there we are.

The day was still quite good. The sun was still in combat with big clouds, but holding its own, backed up by decent-sized areas of blue sky. But the wind was blowing quite hard and it was cold. Damned cold. I was in my Southern Ocean foul weather gear (although without all the thermal kit on underneath) so I was well protected, but the self same cold hands/gloves problem was with me. Ah well – compared with the voyage up to Lechlade it was a beautiful day and I was grateful for it.

The river had been doing its meandering thing for a long time but I got to Shifford Lock at about 1240 hrs and I knew that I’d make better progress after that. The lock-keeper at Shifford Lock was a young, relaxed sort of a chap who came out wearing too few clothes and then laughingly talked of the cold. “I’m doing paperwork in the office,” was his excuse! He said he admired me being out on the river and wished me well.

I went under Newbridge and the Rose Revived and Maybush pubs at 1255 hrs (no, okay – I didn’t go under the pubs, but you know what I mean…) and was at Northmoor Lock by 1325 hrs. It being lunchtime the lock was unattended and I worked it myself. On arrival, however, I was reminded again of the perils of downstream navigation. I made a perfectly good approach to the layby berth, turned out to parallel it only to find the bows being carried along by the stream and thus not turning as efficiently as I’d planned. My arrival on the berth was marked by my giving it a hefty thump with my port bow! The layby berth has a wooden rubbing strake on it and my bows are built from 6mm reinforced steel so there was no damage done. However, the next time I went below two of the drawers in the galley were open, always a sign of something abrupt having happened topsides!

1415 hrs found me back in hell! I suppose I must be careful what I say about the Bablock Hythe Caravan Park but it really is a ghastly place, in my opinion! My logbook says ‘1415 – through Bablock Hythe C/P. Still Hell on Earth! V. Cold!’ It was indeed very cold and a chap working on a JCB mechanical digger waved to me and mouthed through his windscreen “Aren’t you ******* freezing…?” I am imagining what the ******* word was. There was definitely something beginning with ‘f’ between the word ‘you’ and the word ‘freezing’ and I don’t think it was ‘fairly’ or ‘flaming’ or even ‘frightfully’…!

I got to Pinkhill Lock at 1450 hrs. It was still unmanned so I helped myself. The stream was not a problem this time as the weir is a little way away round the corner, but the wind was tricky. Indeed as I came out of the lock I was pressed against the wall and I heard something snap. Sure enough I looked and saw that the line holding one of my tube fenders (they are small pipe-like things which hang down on the side of the boat) had been ripped off, literally, by the chains that were hanging along the walls of the lock. Annoying but not a problem. I broke out a spare, attached it and we were away again. I don’t know what happened to the one that came off. I looked for it but it did not seem to be around. I assume they float – perhaps they don’t…!

Just round the corner was Oxford Cruisers. They claimed to have some mats on order for me. When my boat went to them she had some useful mats on the rear deck. During the repainting they went missing and Oxford Cruisers said they’d get some more. I rang them to say I was outside in the river and did they have any news on the mats; ideally did they have the mats? I was told to hang on. I could hear some talking in the background and then I was told I needed to speak to Andy. Fair enough. Could I speak to Andy? Er…. Hang on. After a long wait I was told he’d ‘popped out for a bit’. Really? No ‘I’ll get him to call you…’ or anything. Clearly our conversation was at an end. Are they giving me the bum’s rush? I hope not. I rang again two weeks later to be told the mats were still on order and that they’d ring when they had them in. That was a month ago. I have not heard. I know a place up the canal a bit where I can get some.

I got to the lay-by berth at Eynsham Lock (the same one on which I passed the night the previous Monday) at 1545 hrs. Lock-keepers go off duty at 1600 hrs in the winter so the one at Eynsham (not Sarah this time) was in wrapping up mode. He’d’ve locked me through if I wanted him to, but I decided I’d had enough for the day. I had made very good progress during the day and had plenty of time to get back to Abingdon before Saturday, so I stopped for the night. The lock-keeper and I talked of how the weather might be the next day, Friday, and agreed that it would be very cold again. “There will be ice on the river tomorrow, I think” was his comment (he was right!).

Going downstream means that one covers the ground faster. When under way I usually set the engine at 1500 rpm. It is a nice steady level and is quite economical on fuel. I can set more – up to about 2200 rpm or so – but even flat out all that does is give about another 0.75 knot of speed but causes a considerable increase in fuel consumption and the chance of overheating if sustained for long periods… no point. I can’t believe this is me talking. I’ve always wanted to make whatever I have sat on or in go as fast as possible and hang the consequences, but a narrowboat is not about all that. It just isn’t…! Using my GPS I noticed that at 1500 rpm downstream I was getting about 1 to 1.5 knots more speed over the ground than I was when going upstream. Okay that is only two to three miles in a two hours period, and only that if it is sustained, but I did make much better progress downstream than up, notwithstanding the operational quirks.

Not much happened that evening m’thinks. I took a few pictures, which I show here and that was about it. My logbook says ‘1900 hrs – Drinks, supper and bed. All well!’ ‘Nuff said.

Friday morning started slowly! My logbook reads ‘0730 hrs – get up, make fire & cup of coffee. Go back to bed! Today programme. 0815 hrs – still on bed!’ Then I recall doing something rather stupid… In my logbook it says ‘0905 hrs – Breakfast. 4 egg scramble. Too much. Stomach hurts.’ It surely did! I had a few eggs in the fridge and they were getting on a bit. I thought I have a couple of them for breakfast. I hardly ever eat eggs (I still don’t know if this is good or bad!) so as I got them out to scramble them I thought ‘What the hell….’ and bunged all four of them in. Then I put some hot pepper sauce in with them to liven them up a bit and scrambled them. Nothing wrong with that. I had made some buttered toast so heaped the eggs onto the toast (I think I’d even warmed a plate whilst making the toast under the grill so this was damned nearly a gourmet experience) and sat down to eat. Prior to my operation I was sometimes prone to hints of gluttony! Living on my own I have been asked in the past ‘Isn’t it a bore cooking for one?’ to which my reply is always ‘I don’t cook for one. I cook for four and then eat the lot!’ That morning the concept of a four-egg scramble was perfectly feasible and the eating of it passed uneventfully, save for a certain unsteadiness when rising from the table. Yes, even with the hot pepper sauce. I like that sort of thing! Subtle flavouring and the sort of food that leaves you with the taste hint of wild mushrooms twenty minutes after you’ve eaten it is wonderful too, but I tend towards the ‘whatever this once tasted of it now tastes of hot hot hot and will rip your throat out’ sort of flavouring! It’s all to do with depression, I know that, but that is another story for another day…

So with a hurting stomach and galloping diarrhoea I set about setting up the boat. Then I noticed the lock-keeper had opened the lock gates and some workmen were about to put a work barge into the lock. I did not want to get in their way so I put the boat in gear and got into the lock before I’d really prepared myself. No chart, no GPS, no glass of water, no coffee, no jacket – that sort of thing. It was just gone 1000 hrs. It turned out the workmen were working outside the lock and since the lock-keeper was in no hurry to lock me through I got myself sorted out whilst in the lock. The lock-keeper and I exchanged pleasantries and agreed that he had, self-evidently, been right about the weather today. There was ice in the entrance to the lock. “Quite a lot of ice at King’s,” he said, “but keep your foot down and you’ll push through it…”

I got through the ice at King’s Lock and thus the lock at 1040 hrs and was at Godstow Lock by 1115 hrs. There was an engineer there doing something to the lock gates and he and the lock-keeper locked me though. Rather strangely, although there was eye contact and a sort of general acknowledgement of each other’s presence, not a word or gesture was exchanged between us. Perhaps I was interfering with their work. I don’t know. Anyway, I got through in good and short order and was passing through Port Meadow by 1130 hrs. No horizontal snow this time, but there might just as well have been. Wind and cold featured prominently. That and a complete lack of any evidence of other human existence. I was alone out there…!

I got to Osney Lock bang on 1200 hrs. The work barge was still there but manned by a different lot. The affable lock-keeper was there again, still in his shirt-sleeves. He is a big man and seems to have a complete disregard for the cold. It was a bit tricky getting into the lock but it worked okay and I was off and away in go time.

Passing down the river past the University Boathouses I looked up and back behind me. The sky behind had turned an extraordinary colour. Dark grey but at the same time livid purple. The mother and father of a storm was coming my way. Dog walkers gathered in their pooches and headed for shelter. Joggers stopped jogging and started running. I was standing at the back of my boat holding the tiller. I had nowhere to go!

Except that I did! The Isis Tavern was just there on the right bank. My sister Felicity and I had popped in there one time when waiting for Iffley Lock to open (sure…!) so I came to a crash stop (not that I hit anything, I just did it rather quickly), tied the boat to the mooring rings, locked up and dashed for the pub door. The first hail fell just as I got there. Well, not fell so much as crashed to the ground. The storm was amazing. Hail, rain, high wind, a hint of snow – the works. I watched it through the bottom of a pint glass, and then another one. This was by way of a repeat of a field test that Felicity and I had conducted when we were last in the Isis Tavern. Because of the state of my hiatus hernia for years I have been unable to drink bitter. Well, I could drink it but I’d ‘loose’ it again about twenty minutes later. For years I have stuck to lager and, given my time in various overseas countries where beer is more lager than bitter, this has suited me fine. I’d had a pint when in the Isis with Felicity and not only had it stayed down but I’d enjoyed it. This time I enjoyed it twice as much! Morland’s Old Speckled Hen if you’re asking! I sat quietly in the pub, read my book a bit and watched a French family shovelling chicken in the basket and chips into their various children. At the risk of writing in clichés what is it about the French? One could see straight away that they were not English. The way they ate their food, the fact that they had a jug of water on the table, the way they were dressed and the way the kids behaved all showed a level of quiet sophistication not necessarily lacking in other, local, patrons in the pub, but perhaps better developed. Even the landlord was serving them with a certain deference. The other interesting thing was the presence of an attractive young woman with a baby. She was tall, very tall. Tall enough that after she’d gone strangers remarked on it to each other. “How tall do you think she was, 6’1”?” “No,” said the landlord, “taller. Those doors are 6’6” high and she wasn’t much shorter than them.” The consensus was that she was about 6’4” or so. Wow! If she has a tall husband, and one assumes she does if things are to work well (“Darling – make love to me; kiss me passionately…!” “Certainly, my dear, but not at the same time, I’m afraid…!”) than what will the kids be like? Hey ho. I am sounding like a Victorian at a freak show. It wasn’t like that at all. She was lovely…

Through Iffley Lock, post storm, at 1405 hrs and through Sanford Lock by 1515 hrs. I then pushed on. I opened the throttle to 1850 rpm and made about 5.7 knots over the ground. The lock-keeper at Abingdon would be going off duty at 1600 hrs and I wanted to get there before he did. I could work the lock myself, of course, but he’s a good chap (Roger is his name) and I thought I say hello as I went through.

I got there at 1553 hrs in company with another black cloud. Just as Roger started to work the lock for me it poured with rain. Both he and I dived for cover and two minutes later the ‘storm’, if that is what it was, was over. Through I went and on to Abingdon Marina where I was on Father’s mooring by 1620 hrs. I had the engine off by 1625 hrs thus completing my voyage to Lechlade and back.

All was not quite over, however. On the way down from Sanford to Abingdon I’d called the Pattendens, John and Pam, who are Father’s neighbours on the marina. I asked them if they were to have their usual Friday night drink and if they’d like it on my boat. It turns out they would, they being very kind supporters of the boat project and me. On arrival in Abingdon Marina I locked the boat, jumped into my car, nipped round to Tesco and filled up with booze and bits of food. The Pattendens are great entertainers and when one goes there for a drink one is offered attractive little eats. This was not the first time they’d been on board for drinks but this being Friday Night Drinks a couple of packets of crisps and a few twiglets was not going to do it.

Suffice it to say they came on board at six o’clock (we’re out of boat parlance again now!); another neighbour Daphne came too and Father joined us later after he’d been to choir practise in Marcham. We had a good time. They didn’t go until midnight, all the while apologising for staying too long. They were not – they were very welcome and I was delighted by the way my little voyage to Lechlade and back, my first slightly extended period on the boat on my own and certainly the first time I’d lived on the boat on my own, ended in a jolly good party with good friends.

So there we are. Lechlade and back done, curtains being made (a small but important detail) by Mrs. Redwood following our meeting on the Saturday, the boat electrician coming to sort out the batteries and the inverter on the following Monday, and Culham Lock due to open in a fortnight’s time.

My canal sojourn was drawing tantalisingly close.