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Friday, 18 September 2020

More Canal Cruising in a COVID World (Part 3)

 The sun rose, the water levels dropped and, after a day and a half at Holt Lock, we were allowed to resume our journey upstream to Stourport-on-Severn. It was clear, sunny, with a chill breeze, but we made good time. We negotiated the two staircase locks up to the basin, filled with water and saw Andrew off on his return home all before taking lunch in, what was for us, a new pub in Stourport.

Stourport Basin

The Angel overlooks the River Severn and is next door to what was The Tontine (which probably explains why we've not been there before!). It was quite busy in the garden and we managed to get the last table in the Bar area. It seemed to be quite a local's bar, from the banter, and I suspected that we'd taken someone's regular table...but nobody said anything to us!

The 'banter' got a bit more interesting when one bloke (his two mates - all middle aged - had popped out for a fag or a comfort break) upped the ante on his banter with another table by pulling down his trousers in the middle of the bar and, when this didn't get enough of a reaction, he pulled his pants down as well! (Fortunately, his shirt was long enough for there to be no real exposure of his parts!)

Once this table of people left, the three blokes moved to that table...and then...when we left they moved onto our table before we'd even got out of the door! (I'd had a feeling all along that we were in 'their spot'!)

We then had a long afternoon of boating along the lovely Staffs & Worcester Canal, passing up several potential stopping places, ending up at Kinver for the first of our three-in-a-row fine dining and drinking sessions.

Yes, we were entering Batham's Country! The Plough & Harrow was taking the COVID restrictions very seriously and we almost had to sit in the garden, but a table became vacant just in the nick of time. Several pints and a few cobs (plus Scotch egg) later and we were sated.

Next morning we continued north along the Staffs & Worcester Canal and turned off at Stourton Junction onto the Stourbridge Canal for our lunchtime stop in Stourbridge itself. It was the first time for many years that we'd ventured along the Stourbridge Arm, but I had a particular pub in mind for our Sunday lunch!

We've visited Stourbridge on several occasions in the past, but never before ventured outside the ring road where this gem, the Royal Exchange, is located.
...and this was our sumptuous Sunday lunch! (I did manage to squeeze in another cob!)

After an afternoon of ascending the Stourbridge Sixteen and Delph Locks we moored up quite late in the gathering gloom before setting off on a longish stroll to our pub for the evening.

Our third Batham's pub in three sessions, the home of their operations The Vine...or...Bull & Bladder as it is more commonly known. More fine dining on cobs, crisps, nuts and scratchings! I must be becoming more attuned to the subtleties of real ale because I could detect that each of the three pubs had a slightly different taste to the bitter! Nothing unpleasant and I'd probably not have noticed if we hadn't done three Batham's pubs in 24 hours.

After a couple of long boating days, it wasn't a long journey to our final Black Country experience.

It's a bit of an uphill slog from the canal but, The Old Swan...or...Ma Pardoe's as it is colloquially known is well worth the effort. The price was £2.60p per pint (Batham's had been a massive £3.10p!) and I had the proper Black Country fine dining experience with a plate of Faggots, Chips and Mushy!

After this it was, literally, all down hill from here both physically and in terms of the beer! Next stop...Birmingham!

From here onwards our itinerary was exactly the same as for our previous trip in July, so I'll only dwell on the different pubs we visited.

In Brum, whilst The Shakespeare remains closed, the Prince of Wales has reopened and we had a couple of pints there before revisiting the Rajdoot!

The next stage of our trip took us to The Bull (in Birmingham's Gun Quarter), The White Horse at Curdworth, The Fazeley Inn and then The Royal Oak at Polesworth. We had a curry in the same place as before and then popped downstairs for a pint (or two) in The Bulls Head.

This is a pub that has taken a 'light touch' to the COVID regulations, but backed up by a no-nonsense gaffer who knows his customers (mostly of my vintage!) It was interesting to chat with him about how much trade they've lost - no darts, no bowling, no dominoes which would all have been big nights for the pub.

Next day and our destination was Atherstone which we reached in a reasonable time. (Having several volunteer lockkeepers can be a great help!) This time we found that the Market Tavern had reopened and, despite not doing food, we stayed there for the whole session. Sharp's Atlantic Pale Ale (keg version) was very pleasant!

Lunch was taken on the boat, on the move, following the acquisition of Cornish Pasties from a local shop...our sumptuous fine dining knows no bounds!

Our next stop was, again, The Greyhound at Hawkesbury Junction which operates by table service and ordering via their app. (No change from previously).

Then we were headed for Newbold-on-Avon where we decided to pay a visit the the Newbold Crown, just a couple of hundred yards from the Barley Mow which is canalside (and our usual go-to pub).

This is a proper pub with two rooms, but I don't think that we've been into the lounge. The COVID signs were all evident and procedures followed that didn't detract from the a nice lunch and Sharp's Atlantic Pale Ale on draught.

Our last evening was spent at The Boathouse in Braunston - a fairly uneventful boatload of heavy drinking students this time!

This just left us a short journey back to the marina, pack our bags and get on the road home...but there was still time for one final calamity!

Whilst we are travelling, my car key and my house keys are hidden away in the bottom of a bag and, normally, I retrieve them as I get to the car with my bags. On this occasion I put both in my shorts pocket before we'd moored up. We moored up without incident and, bags ready, William went to find some trolleys to get our stuff to the cars.

Whilst he was gone, as I was standing on the mooring pontoon, I felt a ticklish nose starting to turn to a sneeze so pulled my handkerchief from my pocket. Unfortunately, my house keys came out as well...straight into the water!

It is a well equipped marina (also a boat hire base) and I was confident that they'd have a magnet that we could borrow. William knew the people to speak to and a few minutes later he was back with the magnet. Fortunately, I'd taken note of where I'd been standing and followed the 'flight' of my keys. So, first throw of the magnet...nothing! Second throw...I changed my technique as I'd noticed that 'magnet fishers' tend to drag the magnet along the bottom. So I did this and there were my keys firmly stuck to the magnet!

That's one of the great things about canal boating, some trips pass off without a hitch and the only worry is a bit of rain or whether the pub is open. Others are beset by calamity throughout...we've had a fire in the engine room and floods on the same trip; lock flights closed and 12+ hours a day travelling; vandals emptying lock flights...but that's often what makes these trips more memorable!

Monday, 14 September 2020

More Canal Cruising in a COVID World (Part 2)

 You left us in Alvechurch and, so far, our cruise had not been affected by the pandemic...until now! The Met Office forecast (and Rainfall Radar) indicated that heavy morning rain (from Storm Francis) would clear by lunchtime. So we decided to stay put and have an early lunch in the Crown and approach the Tardebigge flight of locks (all 30 of them) afterwards.

This was on the Tuesday of the last full week of Eat Out to Help Out and of course, the Crown was fully booked! (It's only a small pub, so not so surprising!) No problem, there's a pub near to the top of the locks called The Tardebigge, and it is quite was also fully booked. Our final option was to set sail for the top of Tardebigge Locks and get a taxi into Redditch where there are two Wetherspoon's to choose from. Which is what we did!

The Royal Enfield in Redditch served our purposes perfectly, with only a short queue before we could take advantage of Rishi's Dishes. Another Spoons to add to our list of saviours!

By the time we got back to the boat the gale force winds of Storm Francis were evident from this view of a windswept Worcester & Birmingham Canal.

Fortunately, the Tardebigge Locks are quite sheltered and steering Peggy Ellen wasn't as tricky as I'd feared. With the hard work of my shipmates, we reached the Queen's Head at Stoke Pound in plenty of time to exercise our options.

Rather than phone, we decided to turn up on the door to see whether they had enough room (better, we felt, to turn up in person!). Option 2 was to call a cab and try our luck in Bromsgrove. We were in luck and they managed to squeeze us in!

Not only was the food excellent, but I spent the whole evening drinking a new beer (for me) - Lock N Load from Brothers of Ale, a new brewery in Stourport-on-Severn. A very nice drop!

Next day we had a short trip (inc 12 more locks!) to Hanbury Wharf and the Eagle & Sun pub for lunch. This was the only pub on our trip where we failed to get a seat indoors, but it was a pleasant day and there was plenty of room in the garden.

This is another pub whose strict adherence to the guidelines will cost them trade unless they relax them a bit or have more staff on to cope with them! Andrew, our lunch monitor for the day, was waiting for at least 20 minutes, outside the pub, just waiting to be allowed back in to order the food! He had the good sense to get another round in!

The afternoon session saw us enter new boating territory (a rare event after 40 years!) by tackling the Droitwich Canals. The first section has narrow locks and the lowest roofed tunnel/bridge you're likely to encounter anywhere with the radio aerial rubbing along the ceiling!

We made it to Droitwich Spa town centre and what a lovely place it is. It wasn't a long walk from our (illegal, we found out later) mooring to the town centre and three very pleasant pubs. (The fourth looked equally nice, but we only managed the three!)

The Talbot was our final pub of the evening after The Hop Pole, the Old Cock Inn and a curry. (We didn't manage the Star & Garter this time).

Next day we traversed the Droitwich Barge Canal, which has wide locks, all the way to the River Severn accompanied, part of the way, by a local charity narrowboat and it's crew who were out training for the first time this year. Pleasant company and help for the hard work of winding locks.

You'll notice the inordinate number of solar panels on Pamela May 2 and that's because she's an all-electric powered boat...which is fine until someone inadvertently flicks the wrong switch resulting in no thrust, as happened at one of the locks.

They weren't intending to go onto the river, so let us go ahead for the final lock. Once we reached the River Severn, I was somewhat shocked by quite how fast the river was flowing. I'd been following the river level rise for the past few days, but nothing appeared to be too untoward and the river level indicators were reading Orange (with a couple of inches before going Red), so the river was still open for navigation.

To compound my apprehension, a hire boat that was travelling downstream and wanted to get onto the Droitwich Canal ended up at least 300 yards past the junction before they managed to get it turned around! Our plan was to head upstream for a planned lunch at the Holt Fleet pub or The Wharf on the other side of the river (which had a landing stage that we'd used many years before!)

Neither of my shipmates said that we should turn back so I put the thrust on and we entered the river and managed to get Peggy Ellen facing the right way and actually make progress against the current without having to strain the engine. We managed about 2 - 3 mph against a current that was faster than walking pace (about jogging speed!) which doesn't sound a lot, but I can assure you it is on a river the size of the Severn.

The key to making progress is to stay out of the main channel and go close to the edge where the water isn't flowing so quickly and there aren't large tree branches floating by! Unfortunately, dependent on the bends and the width of the river, the quieter water often changes sides of the river resulting in a quick dash across to the other side!

After an hour (seemed like much longer in the rain) we finally reached Holt Fleet only to find that there were no moorings at either pub. So we pushed on to the lock. Fortunately, the lock-keeper opened up Holt Lock for us and allowed us to moor up at the landing stage above the lock which was as still as a millpond!

So, we disembarked and headed for the Holt Fleet pub.

 They managed to squeeze us in where we had a lovely lunch, warmed up and dried out! When we returned to the boat the lock keeper told us that the next lock (at Lincomb) was now closed, but it was OK for us to stay where we were moored.

We were there for the next day and a half because, even though the flow was considerably less than when we'd come up the river, it was deemed not safe enough to reopen for traffic. There are worse places to be stranded as there were two pubs within walking distance and we had a secure mooring!

 The lock keeper allowed us access to the lock island to have a look at the flow of water over the weir. Also on the island was a mini orchard of apple trees and for the first time since I was a child I ate an apple that I'd just picked from the tree...a very juicy Pink Lady!

This is where I'll pause for breath! Less than a week into our two-week cruise and we've had more drama and incident than in an episode of "EastEnders"!

***Spoiler Alert***

Next time we'll be experiencing proper Black Country drinking habits...and much less drama!

Thursday, 10 September 2020

More Canal Cruising in a COVID World (Part 1)

 It truly is a remarkable time as we embarked on another canal trip just a month after the previous cruise. This time the pubs felt a bit more relaxed (or maybe I'm getting used to them!) and our major delays were not caused by COVID related issues.

Our first stop was The Boat at Stockton, a pub we hadn't visited for many years.

It was 'fully booked' but they managed to find us a table. This was one of those one of those pubs which takes the COVID-19 threat very seriously and have taken some decisions that might not work in the long run. Nevertheless, we had a pleasant lunch.

Further along the Grand Union it was good to see that the Two Boats in Long Itchington was now open and seemingly doing well with plenty of people sitting outside in the late summer sunshine.

Our ultimate destination for the evening was Leamington Spa, also somewhere we hadn't visited for a few years. Leamington has never been a particularly happy hunting ground for pubs...and little has changed. We managed to squeeze into The Old Library, which has gone under different names in the past and I remember it as the Jug & Jester from last time.

This is a large, rambling pub that operates a table service only policy, but they didn't really have enough staff on to cope with the demand. After eating at the Leamington branch of Piccolino's (very good Italian) we ended up in The Pig & Fiddle, a proper back-street boozer!

Social distancing here was easy as we were the only people in the pub! Apparently, they'd been busy (too busy?) earlier with a young crowd and when we arrived the staff were busy pulling down blinds to make it look closed so the hordes didn't return and they could get back home on time!

Next day our cruising got back onto schedule with another lunchtime visit to Hatton Arms (excellent and slightly more relaxed than a month earlier!) and finished off with an evening in the Navigation Inn at Lapworth (also as excellent as ever).

So, we were back on schedule, which lasted for about an hour and then this happened at the lock above us on the Lapworth flight.

Yes, those two boats are tightly wedged with no movement possible backwards or forwards, up or down! From my original vantage point (50 - 60 yards away) it was obvious that both boats should back up and start again. The woman, climbing off her boat, said, "Weve tried that!" that was me all out of ideas! Two minutes later an officious, 'know-it-all' type appeared from one of the locks above and made the same suggestion, but he wasn't happy till thay'd actually tried it. Result? No change! (Where do these people come from? You always find at least one in any such crisis situation...and they're almost always useless!)

I retired back to our boat in the expectation that only a crane could resolve the situation...and that would take at least 24 hours! However, someone with experience of similar situations appeared and with the judicious use of a stiff metal pole he managed to lever the two boats apart! I didn't see it, but we were moving again after only an hour's delay!

Now the lock flight was full of boats, so for the next few locks we had to pass the boats coming down and not end up in a similar state. The key is for both boats to keep moving, one goes left, the other right and a delicate pirouette is performed resulting in both boats entering their respective locks gracefully and easily. After passing the big boat that had been stuck, the next one was 'Mr Know-it-all'...only he didn't! (He exited his lock slowly and just as I was about to move into the space he was leaving he put it in reverse! As I'd already moved to the left and wasn't in his way I could compensate, but it took a bit of persuasion to get him moving in the right direction!) 

We successfully negotiated the rest of the locks, but it meant that we didn't get as far as the Blue Bell Cider House, but ended up at the Wharf Tavern in Hockley Heath for the first time in a few years!

We'd phoned ahead for a booking and fortunately it wasn't too busy for a Monday lunchtime with the Eat Out to Help Out being in full swing by then. Here they had the right balance between observing the COVID requirements and running a pub.

As we were an hour behind schedule it was a long afternoon session to get us to Alvechurch for the evening. Luckily the weather was good so it should have been a pleasant afternoon...and it was...until we were pelted with stones from the canalside as we approached Bridge 6. This resulted in a broken window and our steerer, Andrew, narrowly escaping being hit! It is many years since this has happened to us in Birmingham and it was usually on the Grand Union Canal, never the Stratford. Fortunately the window was double glazed and only the outer pane was smashed.

We soldiered on and on the way we passed Calypso at it's home mooring...this being the boat that stole the lock from us on our last holiday!

We made it to Alvechurch just as the light was failing and also got to the Red Lion (a Vintage Inn) in time for food.

All in all, an eventful day, but we reached our destination safely (just!) and lived to fight another day. 

Stay tuned for more adventures on board the narrowboat Peggy Ellen on the Midlands Waterways!