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Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Down the Atherstone Flight and Onward to Tamworth

"I have always depended on the kindness of strangers." ~Blanche DuBois, character in A Streetcar Named Desire written by Tennessee Williams, American author and playwright

     Monday August 7th dawned bright and dry, with rain forecast for late in the afternoon. I decided to move up to the water point early as it is located in an awkward place--the top of a lock flight and the side of a winding hole! I swear the design of the canals was the forerunner to today's action video games! 
The lock gates are marked in blue. The rubbish bins and Elsan toilet disposal is in red and the two water points are the yellow dots at either end of the winding hole!
Here is an excellent picture of what it looks like as one is cruising through the Coleshill Road bridge. Atherstone top lock is directly in front of you and to the left, out of site behind the brick wall is the service point and winding hole. I pinched this from Tom and Jan Jones' blog, dated June 11th, 2014. Thanks Tom for being such a fabulous photographer!! Big hugs to you both back in Oz.
     While Les took most things in his stride, I find that every day is accompanied by a minimum low level of anxiety which can quickly ratchet up to overwhelming, making my skin crawl and my stomach clench. I wasn't really aware of this continual anxiety until I was filling at this water point. It was 7:30 am and there was no one else around. There was no reason for me to feel anxious but I did and I sat on the bow listening to water pour into the stainless steel tank as I analyzed my feelings. I realized I feel the way I do because up until the last three weeks of Les' life we have always been on the boat facing things together. I seldom had anxious moments on NBV with Les--not after my first year aboard. I always knew Les would take good care of me and our floating home. Now I am going it alone and there is so much I don't know and I cannot plan for every single possible contingency--something that drives a personal control freak like myself to distraction. I realize I either deal with these feelings through crazy dreams or I find I must talk myself down off the anxiety ledge and work my way through the issue at hand. 
     Anxiety is no stranger to me. I spent all of my childhood and more than the first third of my life as a single parent dealing with it every day. Facing cancer and battling it seemed to put paid to my constant anxiety and of course Les showed up and we fell in love. Anxiety was a thing of the past until he received a cancer diagnosis and then it climbed back in bed with me; now it keeps me company at my meals and creeps through my dreams. I am trying to work through all this while I work through my grief at losing Les because I really do want to enjoy life and I am far from that most days.
     Right so back to boating. When my tank was nearly full I walked over to the top lock gate with a windlass and was going to set the lock for myself when I looked down the flight and saw a boat coming up the next lock down so I actually emptied the lock completely and set it for them, at which point a boat came through the bridge hole and moored up for the lock to go down so, okay I would have to wait until they went down and then set the lock for myself. The boat coming up out of the next lock was NB Bracken and Anne was at the tiller. Her husband Steve appeared on the towpath walking towards me and I called out a hello. He walked up and wrapped his big bear arms around me, giving me a hello hug.
     We met Anne and Steve in 2014 waiting for a bus into Tring. Our paths have crossed many times since then and it is always lovely to see them. Les and I had moored up near them on the Grand Union just north of Leighton Buzzard last July on our way back down to Cowroast. Informed of Les' 'terminal cancer diagnosis, they had contacted other boaters ahead of us who were aware of our need for speed and we found many of the locks in our favor as boaters coming north who knew of our plight through Anne And Steve had left the locks set in our favor, helping us along the water road. After a quick natter and catch up, they came out of the top lock and waved goodbye and the other boat went in. I moved NBV over to the towpath and queued for the lock, helping to lock the other folks down.
     A lock keeper in a bright blue jersey with a screaming orange life jacket on came over and asked me if I was alone.
     "Good morning and yes I am."
     "Right then, I will send my husband along to help you down the locks."
     "Oh that would be such a blessing. Thank you!"
 Off she went to get her OH and I set and filled the lock for myself. She returned to help me while her husband went down to set the next two locks below me as on this particular lock flight the locks fill twice as fast as they empty. Gwynneth and Steven work the Atherstone flight on Mondays as Canal and River Trust (CaRT) volunteer lock keepers and they are a force to be reckoned with! It didn't take long at all before Steven and I working together, had NBV down the first five locks.
     "Right", Steven said, "There is long pound between between locks seven and six. Then there is another set of four locks and another long pound before the final two. Are you planning to go straight through?"
     "Yes I am."
     "Do you want me to walk down and help you through the rest of the flight?"
     "No that's Okay Steven. I think I will be fine now. We've broken the back of it haven't we?"
     "Yes indeed we have. Okay, if you are sure you will be all right I will go back up now and begin working other boats down. Take care of yourself now."
With a wave he was off up the towpath. I wasn't at all sure about how well I would do on my own because as I have mentioned before I don't set the locks and then jump down on the roof or climb down the lock ladders. I bow haul my boat out by hand and it takes more time, which some boaters are loathe to give me. The only way now was downward and time would tell how I did.
     I began meeting boats coming up and everyone was very friendly and willing to help me set the locks, allowing me to jump back on the boat before it dropped too low for me to climb aboard from the side and opening the gates for me. I also met John--a member of the CaRT Asset management team. He was testing the gates on all the locks in the Atherstone flight and so he helped out with lock gates as I went along.
     I reached a lock where no one was coming up and so I set it myself and was about to go across the lock gates to open the far side when another boater coming up the locks came up and offered to get it. He was a young fellow and he watched me with admiration as I bow hauled NBV out of the lock, pulled her over to the side and climbed aboard while his partner came up out the the lock below and passed me to enter the open gate behind me. The young man called out, "Good on you for keeping going on your own and for doing it your way and keeping old traditions alive!" 
Bless his sweet, kind, patient heart. All was managed without mishap because no one was in a hurry, no one was rude, and we all helped each other as and when. which is how this boating life is supposed to work--and does when selfish gits are off doing other things.
     Soon enough I was in the long pound between the ninth lock and the final two ahead of me. There is a white foot bridge half way through this pound and Les loved to stop there at a low gap in the hedge. It is quiet countryside with a lovely view of the surrounding rolling fields. I wanted to stop and plant a daffodil for him but I felt the pressure to keep moving as there was now a line of boats behind me, so I cried as I went along remembering our last time mooring there. My left knee replacement was seven months old and doing well but my right knee was in a very bad way. We took great care of one another as we each limped uncertainly into a dim and limited future together.
A view of the white footbridge from the back of NBV as I cruise past one Les' favorite mooring spots.
     I made it through the final two locks, meeting another single handed boater coming up the last one. It was just past 11:00 AM and the weather was beginning to deteriorate. I needed to find a good mooring spot for two days as another low pressure front was bearing down, bringing loads of rain and wind. I fetched up at Bridge 40 on the North Coventry canal with farmland all around me, and one other boat moored by the bridge. I put my pins in a lovely stretch between two sentinel Oak trees with a large open space in the hedge row between for sun to reach the solar panels. After mooring up, I set the panels towards the direction of the sun and I hoisted the TV antennae, having made note of which direction the antennae was facing on the nearby farmhouse. I mainly watch BBC Four with its historical documentaries and science programs, but I have to be able to tune in All Four for Outlander--the marvelous series made true to every word and idea in author Diana Gabaldon's amazing book of the same name. The winds rose, the rain came and the temperature dropped so low I had to start a fire! Sorted...
From the series Outlander. Claire's husband Frank Randall reaches through the mists of time for her. She has been transported from Scotland in 1947 to 1743 by the magic in the standing stones at Craig NaDunn. In Scotland 1743 she meets and falls in love with Jamie Fraser...whom she also marries!

This is a lovely old working boat. It belonged to the present owner's parents. he remembers going on holidays as a kid. His parents bought a working boat so they could bring the family goats! Now 'days the cargo hold is a garden area and quite lovely too!
     The next day with a short break in the weather I went for  walk along the towpath to stretch my legs. The flap on the cratch cover of NB Hope, moored by the bridge, flipped up and a man stepped out with a spaniel on a lead. We greeted one another and as he walked off down the path, his wife stuck her curly auburn head out the bow cover and we chatted for about twenty minutes. Her name is Morwenna, isn't it lovely?
     She and her husband cruise throughout the summer months but live in a house down in Sussex, I think she said. She makes and sells lovely Lavender wands.  We had a long chat in which she shared with me that she and her husband were waiting for a lock and she fell in the canal just outside of a lock which was being filled with a boat inside. Morwenna recalled that she was not wearing a life jacket which actually saved her life although they usually wear one. She was stuck at the bottom by the suction of the water pouring into the lock. Her husband managed to reach her hand and tried to pull her up but instead he fell in and was sucked through under the gate and came up in the lock and Morwenna ended up making the same trip. If they had been wearing life vest they would have gotten caught in the hole and the water could not have forced them through the gate and into the lock. She doesn't remember taking a breath between falling in and finally coming up in the lock but she feels as though she did...under water! My breath was in my throat as Morwenna shared her story. What a terrifying ordeal and it could have turned out really badly. I am so relieved it didn't though and we hugged goodbye as Morwenna pressed a Lavender wand into my hand and suddenly I hear boater Mo from NB Balmaha who has also sadly passed on, saying, "Aren't boaters lovely?"
Sunset lights the evening sky and the sides of the boats moored in front of NBV.

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

Into Atherstone

"What was it like to love him? Asked Gratitude. It was like being exhumed, I answered, and brought to life in a flash of brilliance. What was it like to be loved in return? Asked Joy. It was like being seen after a perpetual darkness, I replied. To be heard after a lifetime of silence. What was it like to lose him? Asked Sorrow. There was a long pause before I responded: It was like hearing every goodbye ever said to me—said all at once.” ~ Lang Leav, Australian poet and author

     I left Brinklow on Monday, July 31st at 7:30 am. The morning sunlight was just stretching forth golden fingers across the cut, lighting up the solar panels and topping up my batteries, to my deep satisfaction. Before I leave a place and push on, I always check the water level in the engine radiator, grease the stern gland it needed, and empty the bilge of any water. So far, so good!!
     I had eight miles to go to arrive at Hawkesbury Junction--a long haul in a craft whose top speed is four MPH and which usually cruises at 1.5 MPH when nothing is moored up on either side, or just above tick over which is about .50 MPH and there are always lines and clusters of boats to pass in summer. Passing the spot where Les I met Geoff and Mags Wade (NB Seyella) at last in early summer 2016 I broke into sobs which made my shoulders wrack and my chest ache. We saw our first ever Water Vole there in that same place. We were headed north to Chester and we thought the world was our oyster at last. Les was complaining of lower back pain then but it was a twinge and we thought a chiropractor could sort it out...
     I made the journey from Brinklow to Hawkesbury Junction in just over over five hours hoping to beat the advancing line of storm clouds from the west. I came around the sharp bend at the end of the North Oxford to find one spot available--right on the curve--so I backed up and as I sorted out mooring up on a curve, the clouds moved in and rain pissed down in a torrent that soaked me to the skin in less than a minute. By the time I finished tying up the boat and stuffing large fenders in the gaps on the ends, the rain passed and the world was washed clean.
Moored on the curve at Hawkesbury Junction.

     Inside I took advantage of plenty of hot water to scrub the travel grime away and warm up again. In clean clothes with a cup of hot tea, I settled in for the rest of the day. Despite having never entered the famous Greyhound Pub about eight boat lengths in front of me through the shallow stop lock marking the convergence of the North Oxford with the Coventry canal, I didn't bother to check it out. I find myself with a nearly total lack of curiosity or interest in most things these days. Even eating is a chore unless it is crisps or gummy bears which have done nothing for my health or my waistline. Without Les to cook for the act of fixing a meal feels pointless and my endeavors don't taste very good either. I simply cannot cook well without putting my heart into it and my heart is fractured and limping along at present.
     As the clouds lifted I looked out the port side window to spot a mare and her offspring
tethered in the grass nearby. As I watched they each took turns rolling in the grass, nuzzling each other and then playing a quick game of chase and bite with the pony always just out of the reach of mamma's teeth. Just as I put Les' camera down I was aware of a lot of engine revving coming from the starboard side, and NBV rocked as a boat passed close. With boats moored up on both sides of the canal here, it is necessary to go slowly and take one's time--especially in passing other boats. As I looked out the window at a hire boat cruising slowly, closely by me, I was rocked nearly off my feet as another boat hit mine! I recovered my balance and popped up through the stern hatch to see NB April Mist, backing up and revving the bollocks out of their engine, narrowly missing a boat moored permanently across from me.
     I piped up, "Hey what the hell are you doing? You hit my boat!!" The man at the tiller ignored me but his wife said, "Oh did we tap you?
     "That was more than a tap. You slammed into the side of my boat. This is my home so have a care please."
     She rolled her eyes as she declared, "Well we've been stuck three hours behind a bloody hire boat going one mile an hour. We were trying to pass them. It's been utterly ridiculous. Some people have no regard for others." Brits would think or say "Well that was the understatement of the century," but Americans including this one respond with,"No shit Sherlock, and you without a clue."
     "Did you signal to them that you wanted to overtake them?"
     "We walked up to ask them and they refused to answer, she said huffily. Huh??? Walked up, really?? Where was that at--the hire base?? And no reply was forthcoming?? What a load of codswallop. 
     "Is Autumn Mist your boat?" I asked. 
     "Yes of course," she replied frostily.
     "Well then regardless of what any of the other boaters are doing around you, you should be able to maintain control of your own boat--which clearly you have not managed," and I popped back down inside as she gave me the finger. They moved slowly forward and waited their turn to go through the stop lock. What a couple of losers. A shiny, lovely boat, and they drive it like they are on the race track at Le Mans. I'll bet they were right on the stern of the hire boat the entire time and I am sure they didn't bother with any manners or signals. This couple is a prime example of  the selfish mindset which says, "I've brought my boat out of the marina for summer fun so all of you tossers need to get out of our way. We have a schedule to keep."
     I was up at 5:00 AM just as the sun was flowing across the grass and the water. By 6:30 I was through the stop lock just as a young woman came along with her spritely terrier on a leash. Her name is Sharon and she stopped to chat with me as I stood, mid line in hand in front of the Greyhound pub. 
     "Are you alone then on your boat?" She asked as she looked around for someone else.
     "Yes I am. My husband I were married for six years and lived aboard continuously cruising. He died a few months ago and I am continuing on my own." After the usual condolences, she asked me how I found it on my own, explaining that she had wanted to sell her flat and buy a boat for about five years but she had been told women couldn't handle a boat on their own and being single and forty seven she didn't think she could have her dream without a man.
     "It is quite possible and I urge you to reconsider. If you really want a life afloat then research it carefully, and know that women are as capable as men when single handing. Never let anyone rob you of your dreams." We parted ways and I climbed aboard NBV, turned the boat in the sharp basin, went off through the bridge only to find CaRT employees had tied up a huge CaRT barge on the water front by the rubbish bins and a plastic cruiser was tied right in behind them, also on the last of the water point bollards. I went forward then through the narrow gap and moored up at the water points on the Coventry heading north. Of course a hire boat was moored up on one of them. It is a wonder there were any water taps available.
Keep your eyes peeled for this boat; blink and you will miss them as it cracks on past you at Mach 2.
     After topping up the water and dumping the rubbish I was off at 7:35 AM, attempting to outrun another low pressure ridge bringing more rain and high winds. As I cruised slowly past the long line of moored boats I spotted April Mist. At last I was away, remembering last July as I donned Les' rain gear and plowed on through a torrential rain shower that lasted all day. Time was of the essence and we needed to get from Nuneaton, through the junction and back to Cowroast ASAP. Les was in too much pain to sit with me and so he was lying on the bed while I motored on in the rain,which mingled with my tears because I knew the next time I came this way Les would be dead and I would be without him...and so it is.
     Just before reaching the charity dock between Bedworth and Nuneaton I slowed as I started through a bridge hole. I could see a small boat moored up just ahead in the gloom of the close growing trees. A woman was untying it and so I slowed right down to tick over as she stood waiting for me to pass, ropes in hand. I smiled at her and she suddenly shouted, "You are the only person who has bothered to slow down at all when passing!"
     "That's because I am a woman too and I know what it's like when you are on your own and trying to hold on to your boat as some idiot cracks past at the speed of light." She laughed and thanked me, letting my gentle wash pull her bow out as she climbed aboard and moved into the middle of the canal.
Gorilla on the cut!! This house used to be a pub. Through the bridge hole you will see a small boat. She is waiting for me to pass so she can pull out behind me.

     I continued on into and through Nuneaton, lost in my thoughts of Les and better days as we honeymooned on the Ashby canal, whose entrance I passed along my way, and before I knew it I was out the other side and headed for Springwood Haven Marina. I
Springwood Haven Marina and Chandler's.
think it is one of the loveliest marinas in England. Nestled in the lee of a low hill covered in grasses and edged with oaks, the main two story brick building sits right on the cut at the jetty and it is easy as pie to pull in for diesel, propane, or other items from the Chandler's inside. Across the cut is a small, dense woodland where Les and I moored up in late February 2012. Trees had been felled and another boat was moored there cutting wood. he invited us in to help ourselves and we made the acquaintance of Paul and Jenny on NB Panda Julienne. I topped up the diesel, bought two more 18 inch long mooring pins so I can double pin when I moor on soft ground and trundled off to moor up just around the curve, out of site of the marina with woods all around but a break in the trees to allow all day sunshine for the solar panels.

     The wind had been steadily rising in gusts and it felt good to be moored up safe and sound. There were two tatty looking boats moored up about three boat lengths in front of me under some over hanging trees. Otherwise nothing else to infer humanity or civilization was nearby. I spent three glorious days cocooned here as rain and very high winds tossed the world around me to and fro and NBV sat solid and calm, moored tightly to the metal siding, which was a good thing because as I was washing my hands in the bathroom, I heard the approach of a boat's engine going like the clappers. Without any drop in revs as they cracked on past me, their huge wake yanking on my mooring chains, I stepped to a galley window and opened it with the intent of shouting, "You lost your bloody water skier!" As soon as I saw it was NB April Mist and he swilling a can of beer while he lounged against the tiller, I decided not to waste my breath.

     The second afternoon, with a break in the rain offering sunny weather but still very high wind gusts whipping everything around, I washed two loads of clothes on the solar panels--no engine power--and hung them outside to dry. The wind would whip the water out of everything in a trice and my clothes would smell like clean air. I returned to the boat to do some much needed boat cleaning inside, singing happily as I cleaned with the side hatch doors open to the wind and fresh air, remembering how I always sent Les out to take a walk or run an errand while I cleaned. He showed such appreciation for my efforts, telling me that I made our boat a lovely home.
     An hour later a bloke on one of the boats moored up in front of me came walking along the towpath with his dog on a lead. He was wearing baggy sweat pants and an old down jacket, walking with a pronounced limp. Given that he shambled past my boat and then returned less than two minutes later I figured he had come along to check out the neighbor. 
     "Hello. How are you today?" I asked through the hatch doors as he started to pass.
     "A darn sight better for hearing your lovely singing," he replied with a smile as he slowly walked onward. 
     "Thank you, " I said, sincerely touched.
     Very few people know I have a lovely singing voice. At one point in my life after seven years of concert choir in junior high and high school, I won a voice scholarship to Kings Lake Fine Arts camp and my instructors were targeting me to apply for university and earn a music degree in voice, hoping I would take it further and go into opera. The top of my range was e above high c. This is the note that breaks glass. But I had no interest in singing opera or indeed singing in public. Extremely shy, I had no problems singing with a choir but singing solo was not for me. Too much emotion is required to do it well and I wasn't going to stand on a stage alone and emote for the public. I also couldn't get into Uni at age 17 because the Financial Aid laws at the time required the parents of any student under the age of 25 to contribute 30% financially to each year's tuition and fees. My step-father was a mean, violent alcoholic who drank the money up, when it wasn't going for attorney's fees over his public violations or the continual custody cases brought against my mother by my alcoholic father. There is no line on the FAFSA form to explain such behavior--only a box to tick for gross household income. With both my mother and step-father working full time and my step-father working part time on top of that (drinking money), I could not qualify for aid and I could not afford tuition on my own. My step-father couldn't read or write and I was often severely chastised and several times I was physically tormented for reading at home when he thought I should be doing chores--even if all the chores were done, so I knew he would never agree to help fund a university degree. My attitude towards singing solo changed only in my thirties for singing at funerals. People attending funerals are too caught up in the life and death of the deceased to pay someone singing any real attention. One thing I have learned though; never attempt to sing at your own husband's funeral--especially with a raging head cold!
     After the winds finally died down and the rain abated for a day, I upped sticks and motored onward into Atherstone, finding a spot six boats back from Coleshill Road Bridge, the main artery into the village. I moored up and walked into the Cooperative grocery store for a a few bits and bobs and then moseyed across the street to the Aldi store for a few other bits. Home again, I put things away and then spoke to my dear friend Bryce in Canada. Hearing his voice is balm for a sore and weary heart. His tones are mellifluous and his accent easy to understand, an audio hug from someone dear.
Keri Ann's Cosmetics in Atherstone.
     I spent three days at Atherstone, mooching around the shops for tweezers (I cannot seem to hang on to a pair these days. Since Les died I have gone through four pair!), I found an amazing shop called Keri Ann's Cosmetics which had shelves and baskets of every kind of makeup, perfume, skin care, and beauty accessory known to woman; if they don't stock the product then it simply is not manufactured on this earth! I loved the wicker baskets full of pots of lip color, nail polish and other amazing items. I purchased two pair of tweezers just to be on the safe side and took myself off down the sidewalk to the book store of St. Giles Hospice where I picked up a decent abridged Oxford dictionary, a Welsh-English dictionary, a couple of other books, the entire set of I Claudius on DVD, the complete set of Wire in the Blood on DVD and four Cd's--all American artists, paying a song for them. These book stores are lovely jewel boxes, clean, well organized and with such a great variety of books, DVDs and Cd's to choose from; a veritable feast for any book lover. 
     Back home by 10:00 AM,  I settled in while a predicted thunderstorm made its way towards Atherstone. It could be heard from eight miles away. When it arrived, the heavens opened and chucked rain, hail, and lightening! 

I sat warm and dry with a small fire in the stove, planning the next leg of my journey down the Atherstone flight of eleven locks. Should I go early and attempt to do  it all myself or wait until 8:00 AM and risk the help of other boaters? The answer will be in my next blog post!

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs