Boating in the Shires of Middle England – June-July 2006

notes and pix by Adrian and Gill Smith

Day 1 – Gayton Marina to Buckby Wharf (7 locks, 12 miles)

Collect boat, add bags, unpack beer into fridge. Off we go at 4:20. No pix for this stretch, but simple climb up through 7 wide locks to Buckby wharf. Arrived just after they stopped serving food, so ate on the boat instead.

Day 2 – Norton Junction to Husbands Bosworth via Welford Arm (9 locks, 19 miles)

Fairly early start to get a clean run at the Watford flight (staircase of 4 in the middle).

Eleanor at the second lock of the set of 4. Once up the flight there is very little to do except watch the country go by. This is all totally rural, and looks like it is managed 50% for sheep and cows and 50% for hunting. After a quick phone call, diverted up the Welford arm to watch the England game in the pub at the end. Good pub, excellent company, wrong result. Back down the arm, and pulled up just past the tunnel for a short walk into Husbands Bosworth where there was big-screen TV and very good cheap food.

Day 3 – Husbands Bosworth to Newton Harcourt via Foxton Flight and Harborough (15 locks, 23 miles)

As I just said, this is as 'shires' as you can get. Hardly any villages, just a few big farms and lots of access bridges for cows.

Having forgotten all about locks for quite a long time on the endless summit level ...

Here we are working down Foxton flight. This is two staircases of 5 locks each, and is a serious tourist trap for Leicester day-trippers. As it happens, we got the 40-minute wait in the middle to pass 2 upcoming boats so breakfast was served halfway. Time for a wander over to the remains of the inclined plane and generally fool about with the camera.

I can see that you could get seriously held up here, but the queue is very well managed by the lock-keeper and we had no trouble at all. At the bottom of the flight, turn sharp right and head off for Market Harborough which follows an abortive attempt to build a sensible canal from Leicester direct to Northampton.

Instead they got an insane canal with all wide locks except for the two aforementioned staircases to the linking summit piece. Then they built an even more insane steam-powered inclined plane (which did take wide boats) but only at the Foxton end of the link. Oddly it never got enough traffic to be useful and got cut up for scrap after only 20 years. Ah well.

The basin at Harborough is very nicely re-done, with flats (including boat-mooring) facing restaurants and shops.

The town was a bit dead (it being Sunday afternoon on a hot day) but there was plenty of architecture to enjoy. Pevsner goes a bit wild over the spire, which is (as usual) impossible to photograph.

Note the rather excellent sundial which was even telling the correct time.

The inscriptions around the market cross were very nicely done ...

... tempting you to walk all the way round it to see what else there was to read! We spent quite a while in the church, which had been quite recently refurbished and felt 'in use' and alive. The glass was mostly quite recent, but impressive for all that.

The other pix show the box pews forming the galleries down both sides of the nave, the magnificent wrought ironwork in the pub sign for the Swan, and detail of the sundial on the tower.

Then it was back to the boat (uphill all the way, rather oddly), back down the arm, past the bottom of Foxton and drop through a few more locks (to be ready for an early start and a long run in the morning) and moor up just a bit too close to the mainline railway.

Day 4 – Newton Harcourt to Mount Sorrel via Leicester (28 locks, 23 miles)

Early start as planned, and got lucky at the first lock as we were caught by a very efficient boat that was setting off around the Leicester Ring. This gave us the chance to pair up all the way down, which is much more comfortable in the big river locks, as you don't have to rope anything. We only hit our companions once on the way in, and that was his fault!

This handsome early packhorse bridge marked the transition from canal to the River Soar, which we followed all the way down past the Walkers footy ground through the dead centre of Leicester.

The only snag was that Adrian was steering nearly all the way down so there are absolutely no pix of this bit, which is a pity as the in-town section was very well done. Local youth was (as usual on a hot day) plunging happily into the locks, but got out of the way for long enough to let us past – and even helped with the gates if asked nicely. The lower Soar is very pretty, and had lots of nice swinging bends. The other good thing about river work is that you can tank along rather faster than the 4mph on the canal without a hint of raising a wash.

Which brought both boats all the way down to Mount Sorrel where we dropped through the lock, turned around, parked up, trod in a very gloopy cowpat, used the shower without taking off the offending sandal, and headed for the excellent pub you can see on the left of shot ...

Day 5 – Mount Sorrel back to Kibworth top lock (33 locks, 24 miles)

Our friends headed off at 5:30 still going North. We started back a little later, and this time had all the locks to do on our own, going back up. Another very warm day and quite a long slog back uphill broken only by a refuelling stop at "Jackos at Sainsbury" on the riverbank in the middle of Leicester, and a welcome pull off at the BWB hut at Kilby Bridge which gave us the chance to water the boat, bin the rubbish and take turns in the shower. Moored just above Kibworth top lock to get a run to Foxton in the morning without requiring a wake-up call for the crew!

Day 6 – Kibworth back to Buckby Wharf via Foxton again (17 locks, 27 miles)

Off we go, timed nicely to arrive at the foot of the Foxton flight at opening time. Lovely early morning sunshine rather suddenly turned very nasty indeed and as we started up the locks the sky directly above looked like this ...

This is what a thundercloud looks like just before it deposits its entire contents on you. The camera went below at this point, which is a pity, as Gill was in with a good chance of a "wet tee-shirt" contest winner by the time we emerged onto level canal at the top of the locks. Time to dry off, and motor gently back across the summit, ending with the run down to Buckby Wharf, this time soon enough to eat and watch more footy on their big screen.

Day 7 – Buckby Wharf to Stoke Bruerne via Blisworth tunnel (13 locks, 16 miles)

Woken by the crack of lightning about 200yds away, so went for the leisured breakfast option and got moving just before lunch. Getting the bottom gates open was quite a challenge, as these locks no longer had operating spillways so all the spare water was going straight down the canal.

We soon worked out a protocol with the boat in front that we would not drop our lock-full until they had got their gate open! That way they had a chance. We just had to put 2 stout crew on each gate and push hard.

Back on the level, and back into nice clear sunny air. Several of the bridges on this section were stone rather than brick, which makes for a much prettier composition ...

Past the turn to the boatyard, and crack on through the Blixworth tunnel (just how fast can a boat go through here - Adrian discovered that more throttle = less tendency to torque-steer) down 4 locks to the winding hole and back up to the mooring just below the museum at Stoke Bruerne. Lots of chances for arty-farty shots of the sunset, ducks with reflections and so on. Here are two of the better efforts ...

Day 8 – Stoke Bruerne back to Gayton Marina (2 locks, 4 miles)

Just nice time to get back up to the summit level and hack back through the tunnel before it got busy. We met a restored working boat near the far end, which proves you can pass quite easily if you take care about it.

Trip total – 124 locks, 148 miles

Back just nicely on schedule at 9:30am in time to unload and hike back to Stoke in the car to look around the excellent canal museum at the top lock. Pretty successful expedition – lots of locks, plenty of good beer and only got rained on once.