Thames flowing too fast for Pooh Sticks

Easter Saturday 3rd April 2010

The World Pooh Sticks Championships have been cancelled for safety reasons.  Traditionally held on Easter Sunday at Days Lock on the Thames for the last 27 years, sadly this year’s event will not take place, according to the Oxford Mail.

Am I bored tonight?  Yes I guess I am – LOL!

But tomorrow, Easter Sunday morning, nice and early, Zulu will be off through Fenny Statford, Leighton, Marsworth and maybe even down towards Berkhamstead.   Fingers crossed for a nice day.

Narrowboats at Henley Regatta

OK - who is next?  Queueing at Marsh Lock before Henley Regatta
OK - who is next? Queueing at Marsh Lock before Henley Regatta

On Saturday morning it seemed like a good idea to head down stream from Reading to spend another few weeks on the Thames and Grand Union so after a good stock up at Tesco we joined the crowds heading towards Henley, where we would have to pass through one of the main days of the Henley Royal Regatta.

Narrowboats were definitely in the minority as we queued for Marsh Lock amidst dozens and dozens of gin palaces, cruisers, shiny wooden launches and generally anything else which was capable of supporting a wicker basket and champagne bucket.

Unphased by the ever increasing queue, the seasonal lock keeper at Marsh, working on his own throughout the lunch hour, had everything totally in control, squeezing dozens of boats through the lock at time.  Sadly many of these boaters seemed to be from a different planet and our normal hellos, waves and acknowledgements were totally ignored with at best a “don’t let your dirty boat touch ours” glare.

As we dropped down the lock with a dozen others, the lock gates opened to a flurry of spluttering  outboards and whizzy bow thrusters as the other occupants fought for position in the un-scheduled Marsh Lock to Henley race, leaving us wondering what we had let ourselves in for.

First myth was quickly dispelled – at lunch time there were still plenty of moorings available before Henley Bridge, albeit at £50 pounds per night, but we headed onwards and joined a melee of boats waiting to go through the bridge and edge our way into the procession of boats running parallel to the actual race course.  It was a bit like driving a truck down Oxford street, keeping only inches away from the other boats in the procession, but it was great fun too.  It would be no exaggeration to say that several hundred boats were jostling for position up and down the mile and a half long course.  Every ten minutes another race took place, causing a foot high wave to cascade through the procession as the boats came through being chased by the Umpire’s launch – a very impressive piece of shiny rowing history in action.   I was struck with the thought that this would be a great time to do a toilet pump out with the holding tank sediment being shaken up like never before, but it was not to be. 

Henley Regatta boating
Henley Regatta boating

Amongst the hundereds of particpants we were one of maybe ten narrowboats moving at the time – definitely in the minority in the same way a gin palace with a brass band on deck would have been out of place at Braunston historic boat procession, but everyone seemed to be having a good time.  I hadn’t expected the fringe element to be out waterbombing other boats in pirate style, and was pleased not be considered a worthy target and mildly amused to see others having to cover their cucumber sandwiches in case of stray splashing.

But overall, if you want to visit in a narrowboat, you will more than likely be able to find a mooring in town, and with a bit of pre-booking or luck, there may even be a place for you along the course at a similar price.  There appeared to be plenty of late night entertainment lined up too, so I imagine there would some late night boating activity too.

So what if you were just hoping to pass through without any interest in the Regatta?  It is perfectly OK to come through but expect a delay of two or three hours for queuing at the lock and to pass down the length of the course.

Henley Regatta Course
Henley Regatta Course

Leaving the parade where most others turned back to go through it all over again, I guess this has been one of the most memorable hours of my boating experience.  Not perhaps my favourite, but nevertheless very enjoyable although unlikely to gain much respect in traditional narrowboating circles.

Continuing through Hambleden lock we passed maybe 20 large boats waiting to get up to Henley and the towpath telegraph was buzzing with stories of queues of 4 hours at Hurley, which may even have been true.  Satisfied with a most interesting day’s boating we moored up at Bourne End and had a beer or three in the Bounty – perhaps one of the most unusual pubs in the whole country, not least because it has no road to it – and poles apart from the world we left behind us in Henley.

Middlewich Folk and Boat Festival

Middlewich Folk and Canal Festival
Middlewich Folk and Boat Festival

Reading or Middlewich?  The decision was easy and I had a pleasant drive up to Middlewich taking the long way round to avoid the Silverstone traffic on this British Grand Prix weekend.

I won’t attempt to write a review of the festival as I didn’t go to see any particular band, and anyway the main acts take place in the town centre, away from the canal.  However I did find the “Fringe” to be worth going for on its own – so many pubs put on a full program of free music anyway, not to mention numerous Morris Dancers and ad-hoc sessions, that the whole town was alive with music regardless of the main stages.

The boats take second place to the music, as this is really a music rather than a boaters festival but there was still a good turn out and lots to see for the visiting public.  The number of trading boats was particularly high.. The Cheese Boat, The Fudge Boat, Teila the floating shop, Mountbatten and Jellicoe, Constance Irene to name but a few.  The only problem, if that is the right word, is that with such a lot of trading boats (many of whom arrived up to two weeks ago and remained on 48 hour moorings throughout) there is no room for more than half a dozen visiting boats which mostly had to remain above the Kings Lock or below Big Lock.  Mmmhh….

Working boats at Middlewich Festival
Working boats at Middlewich Festival

The working boats on display included Saturn, Gifford, Sweden – of Middlewich ancestry, Shad, Thea, Anne, Bittell and Lindsay all looking very well turned out but sadly static, unlike say Braunston where this weekend coming there will be an ever moving carousel of boats.

In fact Middlewich through the day was comparatively devoid of passing boats – some crept through at first light and some braved the daytime crowds, but on a good day a hundred or more boats can pass through town and I would estimate only twenty or thirty came through today.

Big Lock during the festival
Big Lock during the festival

Back at Big Lock, where Zulu lives, was a major hive of activity around the newly redecorated pub.  Several bands played on the stage, as always located on the other side of the lock, while the Trent and Mersey Canal Society manned the lock throughout the weekend.  It was a pleasure to see that despite the dreaded words “health and safety” , the event still went ahead without anyone even being remotely in danger, or being forced to protect us from the lock with fencing or worse.

The sun shone for at least some of the time, and the rain mostly held off, making it a very pleasant weekend for wandering around from pub to pub taking in the atmosphere and I would certainly say it makes a very nice day out.

Middlewich so badly needs events like this to boost its image.  The Middlewich Guardian local paper churns out headline after headline relating to graffeti, stabbings, broken windows, dog poo, fights, robbery, car crime, accidents, the Incinerator, Tesco and so forth.  It paints a hugely negative view of the town.  So did they promote the festival atmosphere to compensate? Sadly not.  They carried a small online article just before the event and then nothing.  Come on guys – this is the biggest event of the year and you should be talking it up big time!!

OK so the Middlewich Guardian finally wrote Middlewich Folk and Boat Festival hailed a great success on the Wednesday, followed by the more predicatable Five arrests for disorder at Middlewich Folk and Boat Festival on the Friday.  I think this means it was an official success.

Reading on the other hand promoted the Waterfest to the fullest, with posters and banners all around the town and the local paper will print a souvenir this week.  Meanwhile the Mayor can be seen online, presenting the best dressed boat award and generally writing up a very good report of the event, the twentieth Waterfest since the reopening of the Kennet and Avon in 1990.  I’m still glad I drove 400 miles rather than staying local though.

Finally I was not the only blogger there.
Narrowboat Starcross wrote a very well written and objective report.  Its interesting to see what a visitor to the town observed – see their article At Middlewich Festival .

Boat Jumble

Middlewich Boat Jumble
Middlewich Boat Jumble

On the way from Middlewich to the M6 I was about to drive past a car boot sale when I suddenly realised it was actually a Boat Jumble. Swiftly changing plans I parked up and braved the £3 entrance charge – and I have to say it was worth every penny.

Not really catering for narrowboats as such, but boats in general, the range of stuff on display was amazing. Far too many stalls to even pick one out to mention but every single one had something of some interest – I could have spent a fortune with prices so much below chandlery rates. The last time I found anything like this was back in the good old days of windows 3.0 computing when the early computer fairs were an Aladdins cave of genuine stuff at knock down prices, rather than now being stall after stall selling the same second rate unbranded cloned electronics.

An amazing range of specialist products on display
An amazing range of specialist products on display

I resisted temptation to pick up sheets of rubber hex matting at 16 pounds per square metre – about 1/3 of the chandlery rate, or a huge range of dented tins of paint for 1/4 their shelf price. The list goes on and on – I made do with an almost new Dometic 3 way boat fridge for… well lets say a very, very good price indeed.  As well as exceptional prices, it was actually the range of specialist products which was the real star of the show.  If only the IWA could do a deal with this group of exhibitors to share the annual IWA National Rally then this really would create a boating event second to none.  When I criticised the Autherley Junction rally last year, this is exactly what I would have made the event so much more than a boater’s get-together.

It was a complete revelation to discover that these weekly Boat Jumbles, organised by Practical Boat Owner magazine, follow a nationwide circuit and will almost certainly be coming to a place near you soon. Check out the 2009 schedule here and if you go along with an open mind you will amost certainly be returning with a bargain.

Southend to Tower Bridge on Paddle Steamer Waverley

In the 60s the family used to urge the old Wolsley over the Carter Bar into Scotland and visit our relations on the Isle of Arran, which involved taking the ferry from Ardrossan to Brodick.

As a special treat we would take one of the Clyde Steamers on a day trip around the Clyde estuary, visiting Rothesay, Millport, Gourock, Dynoon, Largs and even Campbeltown.  The Queen Mary and the Waverley were the two most regular steamers and even in those days they seemed like a window to an Art Deco world which was fast slipping away.

A couple of weeks ago I had a trip down memory lane with a quick road trip to Arran and I was delighted to find that the Balmoral was operating pleasure trips, although not when I was there.  I totally missed the fact that the Waverley would be back on the Clyde in October, let alone the fact that she would be operating on the Thames this weekend.

It must have been fate which took me to her website and on Saturday morning I dropped everything and headed to Southend pier, the longest in the world, for a stunning trip back up the Thames into the Pool of London, to Tower Pier.  A trip back to Southend was another memory jogger as I lived there in the 80s for a few years, and it sure seems that nothing much has changed, apart from a few more fires on the pier.  I didn’t have time to explore my old haunts so went straight down to the end of the pier just as Waverley was arriving.

After 40 years I immediately recognised her presence – she glides along almost silently, a row of heads on the upper deck, two funnels and the gorgeous wooden bridge being all you initially saw as she drew up to the end of the pier on low tide.  70 feet of water on the landing stage at low tide apparently  and shallow enough to stand up on the other side.  The engine telegraph clanged again as the engines were reversed and soon some 1000 people were disembarking up the slippery old steps of the lower deck of the pier, which are so rarely used these days.

Just as quickly we were boarding and departed bang on schedule in a flurry of paddles whipping up the sea and a couple of blasts on the steam whistle.  She is one of the very few craft which deliberately drops her ropes into the sea on departure – theres no propellors to foul, although we very nearly brought part of the pier with us as the stern line refused to drop off the rotting old woodwork into the water, but all was well.

Time to look around – Waverley is immaculate with varnished wood, polished brass and painted metalwork.  Little changed if at all since the 50s.  Theres a coffee shop, two bars and a restaurant so theres plenty to keep you fed and watered, and I was pleased to see the bars stocked Arran beers and a range of malt whisky too, keeping the scottish connections well alive.  The lower deck bar must be unique in that it spans the space between the paddles, with portholes along the waterline which give a strange view of the thrashing water outside.

The engines are on full display to the public, just like they used to be, and you can almost reach out and touch the pistons as they turn the two paddle wheels.

Outside the Essex coast was zooming past at an impressive speed and we made our way through much larger ships on the esturary, arriving at Tilbury pier to drop off a few passengers and even pick up a couple.  I’m not sure where the estuary officially ends and the Thames begins, but I was surprised how narrow it actually is, as well as a surprising number of twists and turns – somehow I imagined it to be a straight line to the sea!

The highlights of the 3.5 hour trip were going below the massive QE2 Bridge which carries the M25 high above the river just as the sun was setting, then up through the floodlit Thames Barrier, past the O2 Arena, around Canary Wharf, past the entrance to Limehouse marina (and therefore the canal system) and finally the most amazing spectacle of Tower Bridge opening specially for us.  What a fantastic day out this was.