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

 

Chapter Seven – To London and Into the Grand Union Canal!

The First Days of April 2005

I want to press on a bit, because my trip down the River Thames to London, though important, is something of an overture: important in itself but not really part of the main action. So let’s get on…

The day came when the river dropped considerably and I could consider leaving Medmenham and make some progress towards London. I knew the river had dropped. Twice in the night I was solidly aground and had to get up to push myself off the riverbed. Fortunately FRILFORD is well behaved when this happens and a good shove off from something solid is normally enough to get her 12 tonnes moving again. I telephoned the lock-keeper at Marlow as arranged and he confirmed that he no longer had red boards up and that if I was going to set off he’d open the lock for me as I approached, thus avoiding my having to moor close to the mighty Marlow Weir!

As I set off the rain was coming down in stair rods. Heavy stair rods. Never mind; I had my Southern Ocean foul weather gear on and I was determined to get away from the Henley area.

The day went well and I started ticking off the locks steadily. The lock-keeper at Boulters Lock seemed particularly taken with the idea of my quest. “God Bless You” he said as I left.
“Thank you,” I replied.
“Amen,” said he.
I am not particularly religious, but as I get older I like to think I have a nice relationship with The Lord, so I rather enjoyed this little exchange. It had been raining most of the morning, I was a Boulters Lock a bit before twelve noon, and now the skies were clearing a little and there was a better afternoon in prospect. I’d been feeling a bit glum all morning what with what had gone on as I left Henley and the few days thereafter, but this perked me up no end.

I passed through Windsor in the shadow of the mighty Windsor Castle and came to a stop mid-stream to look at and remember a particular mooring on The Brocas at Eton. It was there I had to ‘rescue’ Father and Mother shortly before Mother’s death in 2001. Despite being terribly ill suffering from the final stages of pancreatic cancer Mother had insisted she and Father take one more trip in Father’s boat. Mother wanted to go from Abingdon down to Windsor, and return of course, repeating a very successful trip they’d made a few years earlier. I met them as they came through Caversham and joined them as far as Henley. Mother was being determined and stoic as only she could be, but she was suffering. I got rather upset and told them they were being unrealistic. Mother would have none of it even though she was beyond eating much and was being sick so often she took to carrying a small bowl with her wherever she went. They moored in Henley next to the River and Rowing Museum (of course!) and although I lived then just a few hundred yards away they refused to come and spend the night in my house, even when the heavens opened and a major rainstorm engulfed Henley, and thus them in Father’s boat, for most of the night.

They got to Windsor and spent what I understand was as pleasant an evening and night as they could given the circumstances. Indeed they both said the trip had been worth it for that one evening, which is good. However, the return trip was, apparently, too daunting. I’d arranged with Father that if it all got too much he was to call me and I’d drive to wherever they were; he and Mother could take my car back to Abingdon and I’d sort the boat out and get her back to Abingdon. Father actually made the call to Felicity, my sister, and she called me. I drove to Eton, found them, and put the plan into action. Mother was in a poor way and seemed to be furious that I was there. We hardly spoke as she staggered into my car and Father drove her away. Dear Mother: she always hated failing at something, which is why she never did, and she clearly felt she’d failed to complete something she’d set her mind to, and thus felt she was left wanting. Made her furious.

I checked the boat out and got going. It was about 11 o’clock in the morning. I pushed on and got to Henley at about 5 o’clock in the afternoon. I had ‘phoned Felicity and asked if she wanted to join me, for I was going on through the night to get the boat back to Abingdon as soon as I possibly could. I knew both Mother and Father would be concerned about the boat, despite everything else they had to worry about. She did join me. Whilst waiting for her I stocked the boat with the essentials for a night passage: some soup and bread, a few Mars Bars for that sugar rush of energy in the wee small hours when one flags a bit, and some bottles of booze.

Damn, we worked hard that night. The lock-keepers were off duty about the time we set off so, save for the first couple, we worked the twelve locks between Henley and Abingdon ourselves. I don’t know what it is about navigating on the River Thames at night, but I enjoy it. I don’t enjoy sailing on the ocean at night but somehow, despite being surrounded with obstacles, shallows and weirs, never mind the locks, none of which one can see properly, there is something rather wonderful about being out there at night. At least that is my opinion. Felicity does not share my opinion, as her night vision seems less good than mine. She helmed when it was light but when it got dark she claimed she could see nothing at all and wondered out loud, often, what the hell I could see! Well, for a start, I was drinking whisky and she was drinking wine. Of course I had more vision! No, we did not over indulge; we had to be responsible. We were trying to be a solution, of sorts, not the cause of another problem.

We threw ourselves at the locks (if you don’t know them let me say that they are very hard work operating them manually) and got back to Abingdon at about 4 o’clock in the morning. I’m so glad we’d pressed on. Mother was awake in bed, Father in attendance, and she was fretting about being back, about how ill she felt, about where the boat was and how Felicity and I were. As we appeared she fretted some more. She could not believe we’d got the boat back so quickly but she also seemed pleased to see us and calmed a little. I went to bed but I think Felicity spent most of the rest of the night with Father, attending Mother.

Shortly after that Mother drew on her failing strength and completed (‘completed’, mark you; as I’ve mentioned that’s how Mother liked to do things…) a 12 mile dog walk from Abingdon to Oxford to raise money for cancer relief. She walked along the towpath of the River Thames and was the only one of the walking party to do the second six miles, there being a lunch stop at a pub after the first six. She was way, way, beyond being able to have lunch by then, so walked on instead. Father did a very fine thing that day too. He kept an eye on her by driving his boat, alone, up the river, just behind her, at walking pace, all the way to Oxford. Remarkable.

Two weeks later Mother was dead.

All this came flooding back to me as I paused opposite an innocuous grassy mooring below the walls of Windsor Castle and, presumably because I got something in my eye, several tears fell down my face.

On moving away from that mooring I realised that, finally, I was moving into the unknown. Every inch of the River Thames I had been on up to that stage I’d been on before and knew reasonably well. From now on it was all to be new.

The rest of day went well and I made good progress. Just before 7 o’clock in the evening I tied up half a mile upstream of Shepperton Lock. The words ‘Good Day’ and ‘All Well’ appear at the bottom of the page of my logbook for 4th April, that being the date, and I went to bed thankful that the day had passed without particular incident. Maybe boating is a bit like flying. Lack of incident(s) is a good thing, I fancy!

Next morning I was up and through Shepperton Lock by soon after 9 o’clock. Thereafter I passed through Sunbury Lock and Molesey Lock, having avoided a host of novice rowers emanating from the very active and successful Moseley Rowing Club (I was thanked for my very slow, almost drifting, pace by a rowing coach, which was nice - and unusual. “Next lot might be a bit tricky,” he said laughing, “first time out today… It’s all a bit foreign to them. No control that I can find!”)

Soon I found myself navigating right though the middle of Teddington, past the restaurant where, a couple of weeks earlier, I had dinner with a friend and we’d talked about my passing by on my boat soon, and on to the moorings at Teddington Lock, the last lock on the River Thames. Beyond lay the Tideway, where the already quite hefty River Thames becomes ‘majestic’ and tidal and off which is the River Brent, the gateway to the Grand Union Canal. For me my quest, if that is what it is, and if it is what am I seeking?, was really to start once I was in the canal. The River Thames had been a means to an end, albeit a very fine means.

Felicity joined me that afternoon and brought a mutual friend. Dear Louise. It had been a few years since I’d seen Louise, who continues to fight a previous personal crisis brought about through no fault of her own, and in that time she’d got married and had a baby, thus fulfilling her own quest of some years standing! We had a high old time drinking tea and cooing over Claudia, who is one fortunate child having Lou as her mother.

That evening, Lou and Claudia having gone to prepare dinner for Daddy, whom I am yet to meet but must be a fine fellow for having netted Lou, the Lansdales made the short trip from their house on Ham Common to join Felicity and I on board FRILFORD for supper. In their usual generous way they brought most of it and we spent the evening toasting the River Thames, the Grand Union Canal, FRILFORD, ourselves and anyone and anything else we could think of. Tall tales were told and a good time was had by all.

Funny thing, though; the river that night must have been quite rough for the next day, 6th April, I got up with a touch of what felt like ‘mal de mer’. Odd that. It soon passed however, and Felicity and I readied ourselves for the business of the day, which was to pass through Teddington Lock just at the top of the tide at 2 o’clock in the afternoon so we would be ‘washed’ down on an ebb tide (to push into a flood tide would be to ask a lot of the thirty-six horses which reside in FRILFORD’s engine) to Brentford and the River Brent/Grand Union Canal.

True to previous form the rain was bucketing down as we entered Teddington Lock a few minutes before 2 o’clock. The lock-keeper told us the weather was playing with the tide a bit and that we would indeed be pushing the flood for about half an hour. In the event FRILFORD revelled in her tidal experience. The thirty-six horses made a fine team and with modest revs set on the throttle we scampered towards Brentford at the modest but faster-than-usual speed of 5 knots over the ground. I felt the tide turn and watched its effect on FRILFORD play out on my GPS. 5 knots soon became 6 knots and then 7. I had been a bit nervous of the Tideway, I don’t know why. As with every bit of water anywhere if one treats it with respect and takes nothing for granted, there is no reason why all should not be okay, but I was keen to get into the Grand Union Canal and only the Tideway stood between me and that aim.

Very soon, and very quickly, the weather cleared and by Richmond we were in bright and glorious sunshine and not long after that I was making the tight U turn into the River Brent. I’d already called the lock-keeper at Thames Locks, at the mouth of the Grand Union Canal, and he’d opened the gates for us. He and his assistant were very amiable, characteristically lock-keeperesque!, and plied us with leaflets containing useful GUC information and some local knowledge. They filled the lock, opened the top gates and I slipped FRILFORD into gear. In moments I was turning to look over the stern to give them a wave. Behind me was the Tideway; ahead of me was pure urban canal. We, for Felicity was still with me, slid quietly round the first sharp bend, under the first low bridge, through Brentford Gauging Lock (an electro-mechanical lock one operates onself), round a corner past a big apartment development, past a famous GUC warehouse, along a short stretch of canal and there it was: Clitheroe’s Lock. All beams, paddles and cills this is the first ‘traditional’ canal lock on the GUC and opens up to a totally different world. We were in Hounslow in sight and sound of the mighty M4 motorway, but the canal had immediately taken on the aspect of a rural canal; we could have been almost anywhere rather than ten minutes from the River Thames and London.

I was delighted! I don’t care if this sounds a bit fanciful; suddenly FRILFORD felt like she was back in her element. On the River Thames she felt like a visitor. Now she was on a canal, where she was supposed to be, and I felt I was, through her, on the verge of a myriad of new experiences. It was very good.

Felicity and I had a decision to make, although given Felicity’s tenacity the decision made itself. After going through the next lock, Osterley Lock, we had to make a decision about the Hanwell flight. The Hanwell flight is seven locks close together which have to be done in one movement. British Waterways does not allow mooring in the pounds (the pools between locks. Sometimes only a few boat lengths long; out in the country they can be miles long. They are, indeed, the bit of canal between locks but are called pounds whether they are yards or miles long) and because the locks are rather old and leak water a lot one is asked to get through them in an efficient way. I showed Felicity the chart and asked her if she was prepared to do the Hanwell flight that evening, it being 5.15 pm as we approached Hanwell Bottom Lock, given that we would have to do several other locks at the top before finding a safe refuge for the night, perhaps.
“Well, yes,” was her response, “might as well; it’s early yet.”
My thoughts entirely.

Quite hard work, the Hanwell flight, particularly when one has the Norwood Locks afterwards. Anyway, Felicity is a dab hand at the locks and we pushed on up. We got to the top of the flight and then through the remaining locks by 7.40 pm. Evening was drawing on so we did something I don’t normally do, which is to pour a drink before getting settled for the night and we glided along the canal drinks in hand. I reckoned the best place to try and moor was on the Tesco’s mooring at Bulls Bridge Junction, about half an hour ahead, and that is where we ended up.

We tied up at Tesco’s at 8.20 pm and I went shopping in what is the biggest Tesco I have seen to date. It’s at Hayes if one wants to enjoy the experience. More about Tesco in later chapters, for they are remarkable, sited, as they often are, next to a canal with their own moorings with water laid on etc. I wanted a Tesco receipt to use as an impromptu mooring ticket so bought four bottles of whisky and went back to the boat. Felicity and I drank to a wonderful day and somehow forgot to eat anything other than ‘nibbles’ and the odd mini pork pie. Life on board was not always to be so gastronomically challenged but this day had been very special and prompted unusual behaviour!

My logbook reads ‘All Well! Great Day – wonderful to be in/on the canals and off the river’

And so it was.