After the Easter Bank Holiday Weekend, on Tuesday 10th April 2012, Molly, then 9 years old, and I drove up from London via our new home mooring at Clattercote Wharf. Wharf owner Gregg Klaus had kindly offered to taxi us up to Braunston, allowing us to leave the car at the Wharf to be collected once we arrived with the boat. The half hour journey was an ideal opportunity for Greg, a consummate raconteur and storyteller, to bring me vividly up to speed with the various small ‘p’ political machinations, rumours and ripe gossip of the Cut.
At Braunston it took no time at all for Mol and I to load the boat with bedding and foodstuff, with books and the bit&bobs of boating. I was eager to get ahead, to turn the engine and be off. It’d been four years since I’d last been captain of my own craft. We sorted out the Thetford loo at the water point adjacent to Midland Chandlers, loaded our empty 5ltr. Tesco water containers with fresh water, and finally set off on a journey home.
In bright sunlight but under dramatic storm-torn clouds we cast off and immediately turned sharp right beneath the iron double bridge that spans the junction and set off along the once shared waters of the Grand Junction (Grand Union) and Oxford canals towards Lower Shuckburgh, Napton Junction and beyond.
It was a day to find my water-legs again and a return to the gentle, yet focused, responsibility of steering the boat. No locks that first day, just a few hours of Mol and me spending time in Eileen’s company, getting to know her, her quirks, her moods and ways.
By Bridge 101, an hour out from Braunston, and in open countryside we moored up for lunch. Flushed with success, grinning happy but not particularly focusing on what I was doing I proceeded to slice off the top of my finger on a half-opened tin of soup. Initial curses and hopping about didn’t help much, kitchen roll and masking tape yanked from the toolbox did.
Drama over and food heated we took ourselves up onto the cabin top for lunch. After the long Winter it was an unfamiliar sun that warmed our backs. For a while it was utterly, perfectly silent and still but then, seemingly in a moment, it all changed when three boats appeared in quick succession, and merry mayhem ensued. Molly called it ‘the M1 Waterway’.
From Bridge 101 to the Napton Bottom Lock is around 4 miles, we achieved it in just under 2 hours! Our slow progress wasn’t due to traffic on the waterway as despite it being close to the Easter Weekend – a traditional start to the boating season – the Oxford was surprisingly quiet. No, much more it was because I had no desire to force the journey, there was no deadline to make beyond dusk and losing the light. It was an afternoon to savour ‘slow boating’.
Despite not seeing many boats travelling, I had expected that first evening to see a queue of boats at the bottom of the Napton flight waiting for Marston Doles locks to re-open the following morning. Indeed, thinking there would be lots of boats close to the waterpoint on the sharp bend leading the Bottom Lock, we’d tied up furthest from the pub, at the far end of the fourteen day moorings. It turned out there was no need, as there was ample space all evening, for any boat that arrived.
After a walk towards Napton in search of a signal for the mobile to call home and re-assure everyone that we were fine and hadn’t sunk without trace, we ate a good meal in The Folly and returned to a boat warmed by lighting the stove in the Long Cabin for the first time.
The boat was cosily warm and in contrast to our first frozen night just a week before, that evening at Napton we both slept like logs and woke to an optimistic, invitingly bright morning.
The stove, ticking over all night, had warmed the whole boat through, the warmth encouraged a slow rise and general pottering. Molly delighting in making toast on the top-plate of the stove.
Day Two, we were away by 9.20am. We made use of the services of the sanitary station below Bottom Lock (confusingly called Lock 8) and then began our ascent at 9.50am, all ship-shape and ready to climb the 49’1″ to Marston Doles.
The second lock of the Napton flight has a notorious pinch-point, it’s perhaps the tightest on this part of the South Oxford, and I’d quietly feared going through it. Despite reassurances from the boat surveyor that Eileen hadn’t spread, I wasn’t certain and entered the mouth of the lock tentatively, knowing that if we were to get stuck anywhere it was likely to be in lock 9. Happily, and much to my relief, there was no problem at all.
Though my lock technique was rusty, teaching Mol what to do helped bring it all back, and with the flight bustling with other boats, many willing hands made light work of the climb.
My scribbled notes in Eileen’s Log says: “Lock 16, Napton Top Lock at Marston Doles – leave lock 11.38” Just under 2 hours for the 9 lock flight in a new boat and with our Molly experiencing the complexities of locks for the first time was a grand achievement.
At Marston Doles we moored beyond the queue of boats waiting to descend and made a cuppa before taking on the 6½ tortuous miles of the ‘summit pound’ to Fenny Compton. It was an afternoon when ‘our’ Eileen showed what a fine old boat she was, carrying us through open views across endless fields, and under dramatic thuderstorm-ing skies… bliss!
Around teatime the storm which had threatened since late morning arrived. We moored, just in time to miss a drenching, ahead of Bridge 136 and Fenny Compton Wharf. It was quite simply a wonderful first days reintroduction to the joys of ‘inlanding’.
The next morning, our third day out, Claire and the Boys travelled up on the train from Marylebone to join us for the last short leg of the trip to Clattercote Wharf.
With five of us crowded noisily aboard we completed the three remaining miles of the Summit Pound, slowing to chat to Pete & Di on Oxford No.1 the historic Oxford Canal Co. icebreaker, who in turn were talking to Ian & Alison off the coal boat ‘Gosty Hill’… it really did begin to feel as if I were coming home.
After helping on the Napton Flight Mol felt confident about locking and helped us to descend the five locks that form the picturesque, rural Claydon flight. We celebrated reaching the foot of the flight with a simple pasta lunch, eaten outdoors, before completing the short, winding journey to Gregg’s Forge Farm, and Clattercote Wharf.
It had been a grand few days, and a special time shared with Molly. I was happy that the rest of the family had join us for the last leg to our new home mooring on Oxfordshire, after all it would be from here that the adventure of Eileen, for us would begin…
(Previous posts about The Story of Eileen can be read HERE…)