The African Queen and the Hotel Inspector

Hotel Boat African Queen
Hotel Boat African Queen

One evening in May when we were moored on the Thames at Pangbourne Meadow I noticed the hotel boat African Queen passing by and took this photograph.  I was intrigued that a film crew was on-board and delighted to find that we had possibly formed a backdrop for the filming of Channel 5’s The Hotel Inspector.

Last night (10th August, 9pm, Channel 5) the episode was screened and will be shown again on Friday 14th August at 8pm on Fiver (whatever that is!).  The commentator reminded us time and time again that South African Bonny and Andy Cowley were running a failing business, part Bed and Breakfast and part cruising hotel boat.  Living in the Reading area, where the African Queen permanently moors at Mapledurham, I had never seen any mention of this locally, which is possibly something to do with the lack of customers.

However the hotel inspector put it down to lack of detail, recommending an additional crew member, new decor and having failed to find fault with the cabins, she decided that a flask of hot water would transform the perceived value and have customers flocking in.  I would have recommended a spot of advertising too,  but a coat of paint and some red banners around the deck plus a new blazer for Andy, the boss, was apparently sufficient to transform the business.

Captain Andy was a textbook example of a boater, not a businessman, whose priorities in conversation revolved around stern glands, sinking, grounding and flat batteries not to mention a dinner stopping diatribe about his beard fueled by gulps of wine on his visits to the kitchen.  With a dozen journalists and captains of industry on board he welcomed the party with a tale about water in the bilges, and followed it with excusing himself to supervise a diesel delivery, minutes before the inaugural cruise was due to start.  His wife was quickly shuffled from the kitchen into the spotlight to take over the reception, and managed to get Weil’s disease into her first sentence.  Wonderful – you couldn’t have made it up!

If you get the chance its well worth watching on the repeat or online.  The only disappointment being that any background scenery was restricted to Mapledurham, Reading and Henley and a general muddle over where the boat really was.  Sadly Pangbourne and its moored boats remain on the cutting room floor, so to speak.  Mum will be disappointed. 

The African Queen website

Channel 5 – The Hotel Inspector

Daily Mail article

Beeston Iron Lock

Something of a phenomenon is Beeston Iron Lock.  I wonder why it causes so much grief.

Beeston Iron Lock
Beeston Iron Lock

Beeston iron lock is rather unusual as the ground is too unstable to support a conventional lock, so it is made from iron sheets, rather like a boat, with the appearance of rusty tudor panelling.  Several times a year boats sink in this lock, and so it is to be treated with even more caution than normal, and it has the added attraction for the single handed boater that it has neither a ladder nor an easy entry/exit route as there is a solid footbridge over the lock tail, no steps or landing at the lock tail itself and only a short metal landing opposite which a fast flowing side stream enters the canal at right angles.  Almost all the way from the lock tail to the next bridge, maybe 150 metres, is so shallow at the edge that the surge of water from emptying a lock is sufficient to raise waiting boats onto the mud at the edge, requiring complex manoeuvres to get off the side.

All good material for some serious gongoozling.

It was with total amazement that I watched the antics of various groups of boats attempting to pass through after being moored close by and spending a couple of hours at the lock side last week because it has a convenient set of benches and picnic tables alongside, plus a faint phone signal which is otherwise absent from this area.  I hid my floaty keyring and became an anonymous mystery phone waver, but noted the following.

One of four warning signs at Beeston Iron Lock
One of four warning signs at Beeston Iron Lock

First boat of the day had been through before and did everything according to the four prominent RED warning signs which advise the boaters of the dangers, and in particular state that due to distortion of the lock chamber it is possible to become stuck in this lock, therefore single boat operation is recommended.  This can be a very busy location and a queue can very quickly build up due to the bottleneck this creates.

The second and third boats to use the lock entered together totally oblivious to the warning signs or the dangers but dropped down together without incident other than to provoke an argument when the next boat up declared they were going alone. Lots of shouting and pointing at signs followed.

Next down was another single hire boat, although the next in line attempted to come into the lock alongside only to be sent packing.  Not by the boat in the lock but by the next boat in line to come up.  At this point none of the four boats attempting to descend had yet read the signs which were now being pointed out to them by the other boaters, so one backed off while the first demonstrated very neatly why this lock is to be treated with care.

The steerer hugged the offside lock wall as he was probably used to doing but also without any ropes to hold him parallel (see the sign).  As the water dropped the front of the boat drifted out slightly and the back of the boat rotated slightly inwards so that the counter sat down on one of the ledges which hold the ironwork together.  It probably only stayed there for 5 seconds, as the water continued to drop while the back of the boat remained on the ledge until the weight of the boat pulled it off with sufficient force to rock the boat through 20 degrees and smash the stern into the opposite side of the lock.

This is why I will still treat this lock with extreme caution and I for one will obey the single boat operation.  Having witnessed the above, I realise that if that boat had been slightly tilted it would have braced against a boat alongside, and would have been unable to drop off the side to free itself, resulting in a wedged pair of boats.  So whilst a pair of boats can pass through safely, if one of them is rocked badly then they could very easily become stuck.

Later I walked the dog down past the hire boat base just below the lock, where a young couple were going through a handover procedure.  I overheard one of them double checking that “so if I push this way, the boat will turn that way…” clearly not an experienced hirer.  So why did the hire base not accompany them all of 200 yards to check that they were familiar with the lock operation?

I sat and watched as they entered the empty lock and closed the gates.  The water level was rising as the top paddles were drawn, but one of the bottom paddles was also half up.  Trying to be as polite as possible I walked over to the hirer and told him that the offside bottom paddle was not closed properly which was why the lock was not filling.  He told me it was yet he still wandered down to the other end of the lock but only stood and scratched his head while the pound above dropped and all boats moored ended up on the bottom.

beeston2He corrected the error and proceeded to the next lock (400 yards) while the pound refilled.  Here he is gracefully heading for the open lock sideways.  I ask again why no member of staff from the hire base, only 200 yards below this known danger spot, bothered to accompany the boat to see if the hirers can successfully demonstrate and understanding of the briefing.

Next in line came Mr Speedy.  His wife brought the boat into the iron lock while someone closed the bottom gates.  Mr Speedy wanted all to know that he was so familiar with the lock that he could operate it with his eyes closed.  Which he did, literally.  He whacked both the ground paddles up at breakneck speed while facing away from the lock and talking incessantly to the crew of the next boat down.  Had he looked at the lock he would have seen the panic on his wife’s face before she finally screamed so loud that he was forced to turn around.  The boat had ricocheted from one side to the other at least three times, such is the force of the water in this lock – and the reason for the warning on the sign.  Take a rope she pleaded, but he only replied “no need love – its almost there now”.

I could watch no more in silence and headed off for a break.  When I returned another boat was filling the lock waiting to drop down.  I walked past with the dog, maybe a mile there and back.  The same boat was still above the lock waiting for the gates to open….. oh no.  No half measures this time – they had both bottom paddles half up while the top were fully open.  I began to recognise that when the sidestream below the lock is not running, someone is draining the canal above.  This time at least 18 inches had dropped from the pound, the few moored boats being tipped over on their moorings to the tell tale drawer opening angle.

I asked whether they were waiting until the entire pound was empty or whether they were going to check why the lock had taken 30 minutes to fill.  “No, no… we’ve been told these locks take a long time …”  Oh dear me.  I closed the paddles, helped open the gates and made sure the pound was once again water tight before going to bed.  At least this section of canal carries sufficient surplus water to top up automatically and quickly.

I retired for the night wondering why only those who had actually operated the lock already were aware of the warning signs, and not one person I saw descending the lock for the first time actually read these until killing time while the lock drained.  Sadly there have been at least two sinkings over the last 12 months in Beeston Iron lock alone.