Diary 2004

272miles and 275 locks in a period of 19 days


On the 1st March 2004 we flew out of NZ to begin a journey that we hope will lead to a retirement adventure. Also with us was Dot’s son Richard who was to be part of our crew for this epic journey.  Planning for this had taken us 2 years and was done almost entirely via the Internet.  The plan was to have a narrowboat built in the UK and in the interim place it in a hire fleet to help pay for it’s upkeep until we are ready to retire, however soon.

A firm called Heron boats in Mirfield in Yorkshire took on the challenge and produced a 55-foot boat to our specifications, which was completed on time at the end of January. Due to various restraints we were unable to take delivery of the boat before the beginning of March.                           

Exterior photos

Whilst at Singapore airport en route to the UK I struck up a conversation with a gentleman who it turned out knew the exact location of Heron boats and the canal (the Calder and Hebble) that our boat was to be launched onto. The information imparted was to prove very useful and accurate.

Upon arrival in London we hired a car and made contact with Russell and Lyn who own Farncombe boats and who had been contracted to manage the boat for the next three years. With the basic pots, crockery and cutlery loaded it was then a quick trip up the M1 to Yorkshire. The M1 is not for the nervous driver as it is wall-to-wall trucks travelling at 90KPH and a high percentage of these trucks are left hand drive vehicles from all over Europe. This was not our preferred route but time was critical.   

See interior photos

Upon arrival in Mirfield we found the boat yard quite easily and were given a warm Yorkshire welcome by John and Lesley of Heron Boats. After inspecting the boat and loading the provisions it was time to find a Bed and Breakfast for the night but this proved to be easier said than done, as tourism is not high on anybodies agenda in this part of the country. The plan was to launch the boat by crane onto the canal or “the cut” as it is commonly known at 8am the following day using a mobile crane with a 110 ton lifting capacity, even though the boat only weighed in at 16 ton.  After an early start the next day, we arrived back at the boat yard to await the arrival of the crane, which had been booked earlier in the week. The excitement of getting our boat in the water started to turn to anxiety when the crane  failed to materialise by 9am. John rang the crane hire company to ascertain the arrival time of the crane only to be told that they had forgotten and had sent the crane to Leeds and could not give a definite time that it would be free to do our lift. The hours passed and the phones calls from John to the crane company were getting terser with each call.  Eventually a monstrous 5-axle crane trundled into the yard about 2.30pm to the relief of all concerned. It took about 20 minutes to set the crane up as it had to lift our boat about 25 feet above the workshop, trees and parked cars before gently placing the boat in the water some 10 feet below the car park level. Before the lifting harness was removed from the boat Heron’s engineers checked that everything was watertight.  

  See launch photos

Due to the late launch time no official naming ceremony was held but the boat has been named “Gypsyrover” and we were then handed the keys and allowed to go aboard to spend our first night afloat on our own boat.  Saturday morning saw us cruise about a mile to the other end of town where there are 2 canal side supermarkets so we could start stocking up for the 3-week journey south to London. That afternoon was set aside to meet Internet acquaintances who had acted as agents for us during construction and had kept us up to date with progress and supplying pictures via the Internet.

Due to most of the canals throughout the UK being closed for winter maintenance we had to wait until the 12th March when the canals re-opened before our journey south could begin. We also had to wait until the rest of the crew in the form of Geoff and Eileen Turnbull who are fellow members of the Heretaunga Caravan Club, flew in to Manchester.  The time was not wasted as we trialled the boat extensively travelling to Brighouse in one direction and Dewsbury on the other to ensure all the faults were found and rectified as early as possible. As it was late winter / early spring we had anticipated the worst and while at Brighouse basin experienced the only snow in the whole trip. However with the diesel fired central heating and the boat being fully insulated we were kept comfortably warm.   

On Friday 12th March we serviced the engine and gearbox as they had reached the 25-hour milestone for the 1st service. We also fuelled up with 120 litres of diesel so that we were all set for the journey ahead. The following day we said our fond farewells to John and his team at Heron Boats and headed off towards the Huddersfield Broad Canal.  The Huddersfield Broad and Narrow Canals have only been re-opened in the last 3 years and are subsequently still in need of new lock gates and dredging. We had been warned that water levels might be low even though it was the tail end of winter. Many of the lock gates leaked badly so that the pounds behind them soon drain. As it was we found it hard going with the boat virtually sliding over the muddy bottom or what ever else the local vandals had deposited in the canal. In one lock we found 2 pushbikes and a wheelchair, probably a loan job from the hospital that somebody couldn’t be bothered to take back. The first major obstacle was Turnpike lift bridge on the outskirts of Huddersfield, this was originally a railway bridge into an industrial site but has now been converted to a road bridge. As soon as we closed the road and started to lift the bridge a crowd of spectators or gongoozlers as they are known on the cut appeared from nowhere. Several commented that they had lived in the area for years but had never seen the bridge in use. We eventually arrived at Aspley Basin, the junction of the Broad and Narrow canals, which was where we to make contact with British Waterways, as they were to escort us up to the summit and through the Standedge tunnel, and partway down the other side.

Huddersfield canal photos

On Monday morning British Waterways staff duly arrived and we set off up the Huddersfield Narrow canal. It soon became obvious why we needed assistance to negotiate this canal as the pounds had very little water in them and the rubbish on the bottom was unbelievable. At times we had to wait until sufficient water had been released from higher up the canal so that we could proceed.  At lock 5 we got stuck and with 7 of us pulling on ropes and the engine working at maximum revs, we finally managed to get the boat into the lock. After we reached lock 12 we were on our own again until we reached lock 32 which took us another day. The British Waterways staff later went back to check out what we had become stuck on at lock 5 and recovered a motorcycle which turned out to be stolen.

As planned on Wednesday the British Waterways staff arrived at lock 32 to escort us up to the Standedge tunnel. The Standedge tunnel is the longest, over 3 miles, deepest, 638ft underground and highest, 645ft above sea level tunnel in Britain and was built in 1811. The last freight was carried through it in 1921 and it was officially closed to navigation in 1944. British Railways however kept it open, as it’s a natural watershed for their railway tunnel as the 2 tunnels runs parallel and very close to each other.  

See Standedge Tunnel photos  

Upon arrival at the tunnel mouth our boat was measured again, it had been previously on arrival at Asply basin, to ensure it would fit through the tunnel (it’s barely 7 ft wide in places) and then covered in thick rubber sheeting to protect the paintwork should it come in contact with the tunnel walls. It was then lashed to the electric tug and passenger vessel’s, which were to tow it through the tunnel. The tug is capable of towing 8 boats at a time but generally it’s 4 or 5 boats.  Along with our crew we transhipped to the passenger vessel and left “Gypsyrover” in the hands of a British Waterways staff member who was to look after her. We were then given a safety briefing and the history behind British Waterways’s reasoning for towing boats through the tunnel in this manner rather than trying to negotiate it under their own power.

The trip through the tunnel takes between 2½ and 3 hours but the launch master (Fred) made it seem like ½hour. Fred had worked on this canal for 35 years and kept us enthralled with his stories about how the tunnel was built and was nearly abandoned because it was tunnelled from both ends and somebody got the figures wrong and the 2 ends were about 8 feet off line. However Telford another engineer took over and bought the 2 ends together giving the tunnel a sort of “S” bend in the middle. He also told us how men known as leggers who lay on their backs along the side of the boat and walked along the tunnel walls in near total darkness propelling the horse drawn barges along.

Have you heard the saying “ Toe Rag”, well it comes from these leggers tying rags around their toe’s and feet to protect them from sharp rock and give them extra grip. They didn’t have protective boots in those days.  After safely negotiating the tunnel “Gypsyrover” was un-covered and detached from the tug and with a new crew of British Waterways staff we set off down the first 12 locks to Diggle where we were once again able to set off on our own.  First boat through the tunnel since the previous September.

That night we moored up below lock 15. While having dinner the boat slowly took on quite a lean, which was caused by a loss of water in the pound. Richard and I decided to walk down to lock 16 to see if we could locate the problem. What we found was a boat in the lock with the top gate open and the bottom gates were leaking like sieves effectively draining the pound. After talking to the boat owner who had apparently broken down we pulled him out of the lock by rope and closed the top gate.

We then had to go back to lock 15 to let some water down to refill the pound and refloat “Gypsyrover”. On reaching the end of the Huddersfield canal we traversed a short section of the Ashton canal to the Portland basin where we refuelled. There is a canal museum here but we unfortunately did not have time to visit. This will have to wait for our return when we are not under any time restraints.

From here we turned onto the Macclesfield canal and skirted round the outskirts of Manchester where we encountered our first flight of locks. This was the Marple flight of 16 locks which took us about 3 hours to negotiate. After such an energetic afternoon it was off to the ‘Ring O Bells’ pub for some much needed refreshment and dinner.

Friday 19th saw us woken by strong winds and rain. We had what we thought was an easy lock free trip to Macclesfield where we were to meet an engineer to rectify a couple of faults but in actual fact it took us 3½ hours. Low water levels in places caused the delays and frequent trips down the weed hatch to clear rubbish, generally plastic from the propeller. After the repairs were completed we set off again and reached the top of the 12 Bosley locks just before dusk.  

Harecastle tunnel photos

The following day was still windy but dry. We headed off down towards pottery country of Stoke on Trent where we changed to the Trent and Mersey canal. Just before lunch we arrived at the portal of the Harecastle tunnel, which is 2670m long and the water is always a muddy colour due to minerals in the surrounding hills. The men had just enough time to nip over to the nearby Tesco supermarket for some much needed provisions before we were given the all clear by the tunnel keeper to enter the tunnel (one way traffic). We were the first of 3 boats heading south that day. The others were allowed to enter at about 5 minute intervals. Once inside the tunnel we found that it was in fact 2 boats wide in most places. It was only the portals that were narrow. In trying to stay mid channel it was hard not to get mesmerised because you cannot see a light at the end of the tunnel as there is a door across it. The reason for this is that British Waterways pumps air into the tunnel to ventilate it to stop any chance of asphyxiation As you approach the southern portal you are confronted by a huge stop sign but as you reach it the door suddenly opens to blind you by the sudden daylight,    

Stoke on Trent photos  

We only travelled for a couple of hours before we were forced to moor up at bridge 106 at Trentham, Stoke on Trent because the wind had bought a tree down across the canal and caused quite a lot of damage to a property on the opposite bank. British Waterways staff were on the scene but were unable to do anything as they had been called out to several incidents of the same nature and their equipment was 2 days away. As there were 7 boats affected British Waterways called in a tree doctor who after investigation decided there was not enough daylight left to do the job so he would return at 8am the following day. Quite a convenient stoppage really as there was a pub right by the canal.

The tree doctor was as good as his word and he arrived with a truck fitted with a winch, and 2 assistants. He winched the tree back across the canal from the opposite bank cutting the trunk into manageable pieces as he did so. After he cleared the main trunk he asked for a boat to assist with clearing the branches that had broken off in the water. We duly volunteered as we could see this would be to our advantage afterwards and we were flying the NZ flag after all said and done. I manoeuvred the boat so that Geoff and Richard could use the boat hook to lift the branches to where the tree doctor could pull them clear of the water. This done we were under away again.

The next couple of days were uneventful except for strong crosswinds in places. At Rugeley a local lady who was walking her dog along the towpath kindly guided us to the local Safeway supermarket as we had run short of a few necessities. Early one morning I heard the first Cuckoo and Woodpecker of spring, which was starting to become more obvious as we headed south. We had seen plenty of daffodils up until now but the blossom trees were just starting to show sign’s of blooming.

At Fradley junction the canal was so congested with moored boats, mostly time-share boats up to 3 abreast that we had a problem getting through. As the canals had only just re-opened most of these boats were on their winter mooring and had not started to move yet. It was here that we left the Trent and Mersey and joined the Coventry canal. At Streethay wharf we re-fuelled with diesel. The diesel is coloured red and is for boats only as it has no road tax added to the price. This is similar to the green diesel for farmers and contractors in NZ.

  Grand Union canal photos

On Tuesday we passed through Nuneaton where there were lots of canal side garden allotments. Spring is definitely in the air as the weather is warmer and improving daily. I even saw a pair of Jay’s starting to nest in a hedgerow. At Hawkesbury junction, which is just north of Coventry, you have to do a ‘U’ turn to get onto the Oxford canal and go through a lock where the difference in water level is only 1 foot. That evening we reached Rugby and moored in a local park. It was a very pleasant location except for traffic noise.

The next morning saw a bit of excitement in a sunken barge that was moored but obviously listing badly. British Waterways staff were in attendance but were reluctant to board the vessel even though they were trying to ascertain the well being of a supposedly sole female occupant. As we passed by very slowly we could see through an open side hatch that the boat was indeed full of water and what appeared to be some kind of shrine had candles burning in front of it. Odd!

Our next port of call was Braunston Marina where there is another canal museum and is also the hub of quite a few canal associated industries. This was a major junction on the canal system as it acted as a major transhipping point between 5 different canals and all points of the compass. Here we turned on to the Grand Union Canal and encountered our 3rd large tunnel which is the Braunston tunnel at a mere 2042m long. This tunnel is a 2 way model but we didn’t pass another boat.

Progress was starting to become slow now due to so many moored boats along the towpath. You are obliged to slow down as you pass moored boats so as not to create waves and rock the moored boats. Wild life along the towpath was starting to get interesting with a couple of male pheasants and 2 blue herons. The latter are very hard to get close too but occasionally you will get one that tolerates people or boats getting close.

At Stoke Bruene contractors dredging the canal held us up temporarily. We tried to squeeze passed the dredger but go stuck on a mud bank so the dredger had to move so we could pass. After passing through Milton Keynes we had to clear rubbish from the propeller. We moored up that night at Fenny Stratford where we saw narrow boat Kia-ora which had been a hotel narrow boat owned by a couple from NZ

The next day we passed through Wolverton where there had been large railway workshops. These and a bridge over the canal leading into the workshops were in a sorry state of affairs and I was surprised that the site had not been re-developed. There was also a wall, which was about 200m long that had a mural painted on it depicting the railway, and it’s significance to the town. Surprisingly the mural had not been de-faced with graffiti but access to it was only by water.

As we entered the Chiltern Hills we kept a watchful eye for the famous white chalk carvings on the hillside. Visibility was reasonable with some mist over the hills but we did manage to see the lion on the Dunstable Downs. Unfortunately our attempts to photograph were not very successful.

We then passed through the man made Tring cutting, which along with the railway cutting were major feats when they were originally built.  That night we moored in Berkhamstead, which was, where my father grew up.

We had a quiet day on the 27th. There was a laundrette close by so we took advantage of that and after lunch moved on. After passing through Boxmoor and Hemel Hempstead we decided to moor up at Apsley Mills were there is a Sainsbury supermarket right on the towpath. That evening we had cooks night off and went to the Spotted Bull pub were we had a delightful meal at only £3 each. Very reasonable.

Watford, which was where I was born and raised was our next stopping off point and we managed to catch up with friends and relatives although briefly. Dot's daughter Tracey and Mark had travelled up on the train from London and met us in Cassiobury Park to give us the happy news of their engagement.  We were very pleased especially as they will travel back to New Zealand next year for their wedding before returning to London.From here we were only 2 days travel from London and the river Thames. It sounds crazy really because in reality we were only 30 minutes from London by train or road.  The night before we entered the river Thames we moored at Brentford locks where there is a huge re-development of old warehouse sites being turned into luxury apartments. To satisfy the boaters’ demands they have also built a new marina with about 50-boat capacity.   

The Thames

On the 31st we were joined by Tracey for a day on the Thames. At 7.45am we went through the Brentford Gauging locks, which are self operated electric locks. At the Brentford tidal lock, which is the junction between the Grand Union Canal and the River Thames we had to wait until the tide was right before the lock keeper could open the gates to let us out. The last time Geoff was on the Thames it was in flood and he and his family had quite a hair raising trip but today it was as calm as a mill pond. Just to top it all off the sun came out and believe it or not we actually got sun burnt. We made our way up to the Richmond lock where there are moveable weirs. A lock keeper who was in no hurry that morning controls these weirs. A commercial boat skipper had to give him a hurry up with a long blast of his horn. There is a lock here but it is only used in time of floods or high water. 

Even though we had been on the Thames for over an hour we reached the Teddington lock where we had to pay for a days licence to navigate the Thames. The lock keeper is also supposed to check that you have all the required safety equipment to be on the Thames. It’s a bit late then if you haven’t. We stopped at Kingston for lunch at “The Ram” pub before continuing onto where the River Wey joins the Thames. The River Wey was to be our final navigation or canal.

The River Wey

Upon entering the Wey, which is part river, part canal we found a solitary gate blocking our way. After a great deal of effort we managed to open this gate, which had no paddles or sluice to equalise the water on both sides. Basically it was a floodgate and had been accidentally shut by persons unknown. Once past this gate we found another lock at right angles to our moored position with a sign stating, “Please contact lock Keeper”. Eventually we did find him in a boat inside the lock doing some routine painting.

After he had ascertained that we had the appropriate licence etc; as the Wey is managed by the National Trust and is not covered by a British Waterways licence, he helped us through the first lock. The first 4 locks that we encountered would have been the most difficult locks we had encountered throughout our whole journey from Yorkshire. The approaches to them were all off at odd angles with obstacles to manoeuvre around & strong weirs to push you off course. The Huddersfield canal was a breeze compared to these locks. However we reached West Byfleet where we walked into town so that Tracey could catch a train home & we picked up a few provisions. That night we moored up at the pub opposite the Pyrford Basin marina and had a very peaceful night.

The river Wey is certainly a river of contrasts as it goes from wide and deep to narrow and shallow. It passes through mainly rural settings but there are some built up areas with properties backing onto the river. Unlike canals the river has a constant flow of water, which is controlled by weirs operated by Lengths men all along its course. In times of heavy rain the un-navigable sections of the river can become quite wild. The river passes through the centre of Guildford and at Dapdune wharf there is a visitors centre, which outlines the whole history of the river from the 1600’s when the river had many flourmills along its banks. These mills had huge water wheels to run the mill and grind the flour.

As the industrial revolution took hold the river was the first to be made navigable by way of locks and this took the water flow away from the millers, which caused quite a bit of unpleasantness. One of the many cargoes that were stored at Dapdune wharf awaiting shipment was gunpowder. The usual agricultural crops and wool were the main freight to be shipped by barge along the Wey. There is also an original wooden barge that is open for display, which gives you some idea of the living conditions that the boatmen had to endure. These barges were totally different from the barges in the North of England, as they tended to be wider and longer.

After another couple of hours travel we finally reached our destination of Farncombe Boats at Godalming. From here there was only one more lock and a little under a mile of navigable waterway left which ended quite conveniently next to a supermarket and shopping mall. After spending the weekend aboard “Gypsyrover” at Farncombe Boats we left her in the capable hands of Russell and Matt to spend our final week in London.

A total of 272miles and 275 locks in a period of 19 days. 

Not bad going and I am sure we would never have done it at any other time of the year.  Most of this time we only saw one or two other boats in a day.

In future our traveling will be at a much more leisurely pace, but time was of the essence, we had to return to New Zealand to earn a living.  The next few years we can relax much more as we will only be looking for casual work during our travels.

The diary continues in October 2005 here.

Back to top