As light rain turned heavy we arrived at the third lock of the day, the curiously lozenge-shaped Aynho Weir Lock. The River Cherwell crosses the canal just above the top gate, but having a drop of only 12 inches, the lock chamber was widened to 20ft in order to take more water down to the 12ft deep Somerton Lock further along the canal. We waited while a day boat bashed about and finally out before moving on in.
Murk and me took the towpath route while Nick took the tiller. A hatch flew open, Nick readied himself for what would have been a very unjust ‘slow down!’ and was almost as surprised as I was to hear, ‘You’re a good looking chap aren’t you?’ And if that wasn’t entertaining enough, for some reason, despite coming from a woman, the compliment super charged Nick with campness, ‘Oooh you’ve knocked me sideways!’ he blushed. Blimey. Unable to see the hatch fan I asked what she was like – apparently somewhere between Holly Willobooby and Kelly Brook. Interesting, the voice didn’t match that face combo. Hmmm.
By lunchtime we’d reached Aynho Wharf where we dried out. Nick went over to the boatyard where he was allowed to rummage for a bracket in the workshop… I managed to leave the lamp bracket somewhere on the towpath in Napton. With no luck he returned and got chatting to a boater who was enthusing about the quality of bacon available at The Pig Place, quite a while later the guy disappeared to sift through his boat and returned with a bracket, yet another kind-hearted narrowboater – the water seems to bring out the best in people.
The sun broke through as we moved a couple more miles to a lovely mooring and got on with a little more renovation. By late afternoon Nick was climbing the walls, frantically searching for a nut that might fit the lamp bolt when suddenly he disappeared back off along the towpath to visit his bacon loving friend, returning with a nut he was able to finish the cratch job. If the lost bracket happens to turn up in a coat pocket anytime soon it will silently slip into the bin.
The weather finally perked right up so we stayed put for the day and got on with a bit of boat maintenance. With most activities requiring drying time we had a quite a bit on the go: metal filler setting, primer drying, gloss baking in the sun, wood stain fixing, varnish turning tacky and the cratch cover getting a vinyl treatment… the time seemed right to make some elderberry cordial and drip it across the carpet. That went down well.
It’s a bit crackers to think we’re only 20 odd miles from Oxford as today has been ridiculously quiet, with nobody about on the boat moored behind, there’s only been a handful chug past. Just round the corner is one of prettiest lock cottages, although with a boat providing an endless ‘to do’ list it’s a wonder anyone ever manages a house – I guess they don’t rust.
All very odd having the cratch down at the moment, it definitely makes getting in and out the boat less of a duck and dive plus the outside feels so much closer. After the coldest August since 1993 it was lovely to enjoy drinks and the sun going down sat in a spot usually hidden away under vinyl.
Early morning boat movers had gathered all around by the time we removed the port-hole bungs. By 9am Castle Quay was busy, the carousel already spinning the first load of bleary eyed toddlers. In the process of finding out how to get into the walkway over the canal we discovered Banbury Museum. On leaving the Gongoozlers were out in force, there were even oohs and aahs and shout outs as to whether the boat would glide in the lock or smack the sides.
Past the services we pulled in for Morrisons – just over the bridge it’s up there with the best in terms of distance from the water. A delightful group of young locals werre huddled under the bridge, harmless enough – as Nick walked along the roof at them they melted back into the wall turning overly helpful by pointing out a tyre in the water, while their mates launched a shower of sticks from the top of the bridge…but even they chatted while they threw, chucking sticks at boats comes as second nature.
Lift bridges are a common feature along the Oxford canal, being cheaper to install than stone or brick bridges they were originally added as a cost cutting exercise. There seems to be a bit of a war going on: walkers preferring the bridges lowered and boaters favouring them raised, approaching one raised bridge a guy was hanging from the chain, attempting to lower it in order to continue his walk the other side – it was a losing battle as that bridge was permanently padlocked open. Establishing he definitely wanted to cross Nick offered that he walked across the stern, ‘That’d be great,’ came the reply, ‘but how are we going to do this?’ Alarm bells should have started ringing at this point but the guy looked able enough, early thirties, outdoorsy type. Perhaps doing it day in day out we take moves like this for granted – the guy steadied himself, shuffled, leapt…and disappeared under the water. For quite some time. Maybe he just wanted to hide his face down there in the gloom, swamped with embarrassment. Watching in disbelief, wishing the last ten seconds were unwindable we were a little slow in cutting the engine so he was fairly lucky not to get liquidised too. Riddled with shame he stripped off, gladly changed into one of Nick’s t-shirts, asked is we’d bin his cigarettes, introduced himself as Chris, shook Nick’s hand and squelched off in the direction of Banbury.
It’s just three miles, but tonight’s rural mooring is a world away from the centre of Banbury.
After a water fill in Cropredy we moved on out, away from the chocolate box cottages. It might not have been the warmest of days but it was definitely way warmer than the last time we arrived in Banbury, frozen to the stern.
Under strict instructions to ‘Moor as soon as you smell the doughnuts,’ given by a helpful boater who’d explained there was ‘No way you’ll get a mooring in the centre.’ we felt pretty lucky to have pick of the spaces – doughnut scented or town centre, it was all up for grabs. So, we started off with the doughnuts near B&Q before moving down into the heart of Banbury – a partly successful move as the view improved but TV disappeared from available onboard entertainment.
Banbury’s character seems a mashup of places visited on tour – old and new, a mixture of no non-sense northerness laced with a bit of the soft south and all the Polskie nalesniki, zrazy and pierogi you could ever wish to find. Tonight’s mooring is more interesting than the average shopping centre, Banbury castle stood on the site for around 400 years before being demolished in 1648 when its stones disappeared to new beginnings in houses around the town.
‘Yep, we gave each other the look that means we spent the night together,’ Nick called through to the bedroom – genuinely pleased at the nod of acknowledgement as he dried the coffee cups, gazing out the window at the hairy sandal wearing man motoring by on the stern of ‘Mr Toad’. There’s something about sleeping within feet of a complete stranger that means you wake with a bit of a bond despite having never spoken.
Unlike the re-engineered section above Braunston, this part of the Oxford canal is crammed with twists and turns making for a very pretty journey, packed with blackberries and sloes, the hedges have a purple tinge.
After a lunch stop at Fenny Compton we headed into The Wharf in search of butter. It’s an unusual set up with a kind of wicker basket home produce market sale going on in the garden and a shop tucked somewhere between the kitchen and the bar, making you feel as through you’ve somehow landed in the store cupboard. There’s plenty to buy – a record-breaking six types of baked beans but sadly no butter.
Leaving the summit level, the canal began the drop towards Oxford, the amount of boats moving today must have been close to one of the busiest we’ve seen. Blustery rain cleared leaving a sunny afternoon, showing the best side of beautifully thatched Cropredy.
Napton Locks were great fun with a whole run of genuine, interesting people, together everyone would have made for a very good, very squished dinette dinner party – complete with star guest Denise Black, oh yeah it’s all happening out here, in the middle of nowhere.
After the excitement of the Napton flight we pulled over to get to grips with the cratch frame and general front of the boat which has slowly slipped to a nasty looking state. The rain held off while gouging, prising and sanding got underway. The horn and light got sanded, wire wooled, brassoed (even though it seems very un-brass like) and finally lacquered, of course.
After a slightly alarming initial Canal and River Trust update, the stoppage at Caravan Lift Bridge looks set to be sorted before too long.
Tied up on the first Braunston mooring it was strange walking to the church at the top of the hill and realising we were actually almost in the heart of the village. The Atherstone Aldi stock up it still going strong, so a pint of milk and some cream later we walked back down the hill to dump The Murkster – Midland Chandlers is way too much fun for one person to hang about outside holding the dog.
The rows of toilets, camping kettles, holding tank chemicals, 12v fridges and water containers may evoke nostalgic feelings of childhood camping but the prices do not, making it a great place to handle the goods, read the packaging, check the quality etc before investigating how much cheaper it can be bought elsewhere. We did come away with some brass lacquer, having only heard people bemoan their luck at having lacquered mushrooms in the past we’re struggling to see what’s not to like – a whole new world of long-term shiny possibilities has opened up. It turns out that even the curtains poles should be shiny, not dingy green. Murk is not so keen on the stink of Brasso in the air, which is a shame for him as one pole is done leaving 13 to go.
After a water fill, one ongoing dispute was settled – I championed the Grand Union as the route down to London, whereas Nick favoured Oxford and the Thames, no prizes for guessing which way we headed at Braunston Turn – Oxford is 50 miles away.