Kennet and Avon Canal 2002

It was an exhausting week, trying to keep up with the different needs of three young lads as we learned the new skills of canal-boating. It was supposed to be life at four miles an hour, but in the background was the hedonism of youth on the one hand and the inexplicable of the autistic on the other. We had set ourselves up for a hard one and got it mostly right, but maybe the holiday was two days too many.

The novelty gripped everyone’s attention at the beginning. We had a sixty foot boat and I was nervous about handling it. Andrew was quiet and disappeared up the front end as we made our first tentative waves.  Chris bumped into a moored boat and was roundly cursed by the owner in the middle of his supper and red wine. I then lost right from left and tried to get up onto the towpath. Ben made straight for a fisherman. Sheila just went neurotic. Other new boaters were in a similar state of uncertainty, but it was not reassuring to compare disasters in that first hour or so. It took the morning of the second day for me to get the hang of steering and push the speed up from dead slow. Ben became confident enough on the canal itself but it was Chris who looked to have mastered it by the time we had finished.  Enough for him to be overconfident and leave throwing it into reverse until the last possible moment.

We were fortunate to have excellent weather throughout, so everyone was outside most of the time. For Sheila and I that meant seeing town and country from an alternative viewpoint from the one we are used to. The slow speed enables you to be aware of wild life, trees and shrubs, much as if you were walking through it. There were gulls, herons and lots of smaller varieties, ducks and swans. Swans in flight over Bristol harbour were awesome. The approach to Bath, under bridges of Bath stone, some with buildings (one was the headquarters of the canal company) and along a canalside made up of other buildings, was beautiful. Bristol harbour’s access was all modernity and high rise, offices and expensive apartments, floating restaurants and long launches, but none the less impressive. Despite trying to manage our young men, neither of us read a book, we must have acclimatised to the slower pace to some extent because both of us were shocked by the road traffic when we ventured into Bath.

The boat itself was twenty tons, but given plenty of advanced thinking and planning, manoeuvrable. It’s a big caravan really. It had basic facilities, and was mostly bedroom – there were five of us and large at that. The kitchen or galley and the toilets or heads were adequate, though we visited pubs and restaurants when we could. Showers were small, but there were several leisure centres with swimming pools along the way – the main method of getting Andrew to smell more acceptable. To start with, I took the helm, and the boys acted as crew, opening and closing lock gates and paddles. With a little help from other boaters and lock keepers we became good enough, and even Andrew grasped the basic principles. I then went round all the various tasks while Chris steered, so I got a sense of all that needed to be done. With care there should be no problems. The boy’s lack of concentration was worrying sometimes. Simple things were forgotten or performed sloppily, but we survived with no major calamities.

The majority of people we met were friendly and helpful. Only a minority seemed snooty and sometimes critical. The waterboard official at the Bath lock flight was great, as was the harbour master at Bristol. One couple of exiled Welsh shared our ascent of the Bath flight, which gave us a lot of help and insight into a potentially hazardous task. The wife of another couple couldn’t tell us soon enough that she was a teacher, whilst her husband made rather dismissive hand gestures at the boys when he perceived they were failing in their allotted jobs. Kids are used to such adult behaviour and shrug it off and they can be just a tad casual sometimes.

Day 1 – Bradford-upon-Avon.  Mon

The first day was short – we arrived late as a result of the inevitable motorway roadworks and congestion – which suited us learner drivers. The training was miniscule; how could they let such as us out unsupervised onto the inland waterways of England? We went into a side pond and toddled about, trying to turn the boat using the wind. On canals there are intermittent bulges in the width, known as winding holes, not rhyming with binding.  Here you can turn round, given the cooperation of other canal users. It’s interesting that this technique of using the wind was not the one recommeded in the manual on board.  In fact it was the first in a number of conflicting pieces of advice that we received: to have a rope loosely tied when going up in lock, to half open gate paddles to start with were two examples.

The tutor then pointed us toward Bath and jumped off, following which we bumped into a moored boat and got the rough edge of the bargee’s tongue. After two further scrapes without serious consequenceswe gratefully parked up, though tilted a little as we had partially gone aground. Put out the plank a passer-by advised and plastic bags on your mooring stakes to warn off cyclists.  You should be able to push her off in the morning.

We needed some provisions and we thought we’d moored near a supermarket – go to the first bridge our supervisor cum tutor had said.  n fact we were at the second and the supermarket was at the third. So a small trip to a corner shop had to do.  We were near quite a posh looking marina and pub – The Beef and Barge, so we checked in for a drink after tea. Strange how a couple of pints can change a sixteen year old. Ben’s called in the loo as we leave and catches us up by trying to scale a privet hedge around the car park. Catches his foot and sprawls into the middle of the road. Mercifully there’s no traffic.

Day 2 – Claverton.  Tues

I started up the engine the following morning as a way of getting the two boys in the saloon/bedroom up and running, but forgot to tell Sheila who was preparing breakfast.  Not a good idea when the various bits of bread and cereal where balancing precariously about the stove. Communication needs to take place she suggested.

We shoved off successfully and got to the bridge close to the supermarket. It was a further chance to practise mooring and discover the jobs that the crew had to do. Just get the front end close, get into reverse, crew jump off and pull in on the jobs front and rear.

Chap in the supermarket takes exception to what he perveived as my queue-jumping. I was cool and assertive, which seemed to irritate him, discussing the situation with the check-out man rather than me. It had in fact been a fifty-fifty call as a new outlet opened up in response to congestion. We’d been waiting a while and had an equal claim, and I was quicker, simple really, but he took umbrage – probably an eternal grumbler. Andrew witnessed it all, was about to go on one because I hadn’t bitten the guy’s head off.  Just forget it, I said, not a problem. It was the first of a series of encounters, short-lived but mildly off-putting.

The first lock followed. The situation at Bradford looked congested, was everybody queueing for the lock? Who were all these guys? Loads of spectators too. We asked around and for help. One guy was taking on water, an American or so we thought. We just about caught the fact that he was watering, the rest a combination of English words, but their order or accent or something left all of us wondering what the hell he’d said. One boat took pity on us, and no one else needed the lock so we were assisted through. The lads all had some sort of a go with the windlass, and I steered. It was a further bit of learning.

We then had a swingbridge which turned out to be easy. It’s a long pound from now until Bath and good experience of steering, going a little faster, trying dead slow when passing moored boats and fishermen, and negotiating oncoming boats – slowing and passing on the right. By the time we stop for water at Brassknocker, I’ve got the hang of it. It’s all about making the correct assumptions as to what the other guy is going to do, and most play it by the book. Only once did a chap get it all wrong and that was up in Bath. He was from mainland Europe somwhere and chose the manoevre in reverse, claiming there wasn’t enough room to turn around. All the other bargees were out looking at him, and I had to get round him somehow. Everyone tried to cooperate, and compensate for this guy, who had no idea really – certainly less than me, and I’d been going about two or three hours.

There were two aqueducts – terrific and after the second one at Brassknocker we took on water. It took ages, you’ve no idea how much water you can use in such a short space of time – showers, toilets, drinking. Sheila wanted to moor at Claverton. We found spot behind a hippie boat. I made the assumption that these were young people who had adopted an alternative life-style. Slightly different to boat-owners who looked as though they had retired. The latter had well appointed boats, with traditional fixures, fittings and paintwork. The alternative boats were often a bit unkempt looking, with windmill adornments, sculptures of buddha and African native heads on the roof. They all seemed like work in progress. Their owners dressed appropriately – women with male hair styles, men with lots of rings and things in odd places, Doc Marten’s, you know the kind of thing.  One boat chugged past with four all on the afterdeck, swigging on beer bottles and a loud-speaker with some sort of rap or reggae or that kind of rhythm – I haven’t a clue. A bit like the flat of girls opposite Elliot Gould in ‘The Long Goodbye’. Oblivious and harmless.

The hoot and rush of The GWR accompanied us – every twenty minutes or so. It’s all a reminder of the eigthteenth and nineteenth century transport revolution. ‘The Avon and Kennet’ was completed in 1810 or thereabouts, one year after Bristol’s floating harbour.  The GWR was in full swing by the 1830’s. If the railway network and the preserved section of it is a huge train set for men to play with, the canals are a much more accessible way of immersing yourself at the level of your choice – the techical side (make and style of boats, engines, art, working practices), the place in history, the people and so on. You don’t get to drive your own trains very often but a canal boat is there quite easily.

Claverton is in the middle of nowhere, and the walk to the pub was 40 minutes – not a problem, thought prices are scandalous – £2.70 for a pint of lager, nearly enough to stop you from drinking.

Day 3  – Bath  Wed

We start early intending to arrive early and get a decent mooring, and so we do. The cruising is extremely pleasant, and we are getting better at steering and mooring.

The approach to Bath is stunning and its mostly about the buildings, either on the hillside in terraces and crescents, or right at canalside. The bridges are also in the same Bath stone, carved, ornate, elegant and timeless. It gets a tad tight when avoiding oncoming traffic – skills improving here too.

We troop into Bath that afternoon, past the county cricket ground, where a junior match is taking place. The traffic takes us by surprise, we’ve been free of it for two days. The open-top bus tour is £6. We hear about an agricultural and industrial past and about the famous people who have stayed here (Jane Austen for example). Today the money comes from tourism, the more the better apparently. Andrew, Sheila and myself then wander up to the bridge with shops on it next to the weir and ‘the rec’.

Its a great picture.  We do a little supermarket shop and Andrew is questioned about his age when he tries to buy an alcopop. I vouch for him, before he blows his top.

That night Manchester United are playing in Euruope and the younger boys want a sports bar. We find one at the cheaper end of Bath and look no further. The food’s OK and we’re not ripped off, but the decor is tatty. We leave them and search for a pool table for Andrew who is about to go on one of his tantrums. Every pub we try has a large screen and more facilities than the boys have. We find one with a table as well and I go back for them. Chris says yes, we’ll come and I wait outside. Nothing happens and I go back in. Ben is ensconced in deep converstion with a stranger who apparently is a Leeds supporter. He has a half drunk pint in front of him with a packet of ten cigs. He’s there for the night and I’m not waiting. Andrew could be committing murder.

I’m stopped by the police, two women coppers draw up in a car and run over the road. One of them thinks I look like a photograph on nick wall. They take my name and address and they phone the sargeant to bring down the photo. I’m less than helpful, there could be a full scale riot up in Bath by now. Five minutes and he arrives. I look nothing like the photo. I don’t wait for any apology.

Back at the pool table, Sheila is just about keeping the lid on it. We play pool. Andrew is awful and angry. Three black asian youths put some money on the table. One of them stands and watches –  was he intimidating deliberately? I don’t know, maybe I was feeling intimidated. The game went on far too long however as I desperately tried not to pot balls and put the white where he could hit it.

What a crap way to spend an evening.

Day 4 – Bristol   Thur

The following morning its the Bath flight of locks – 6 in all, including a double one at the bottom, before going out onto the Avon. I consulted the lock keeper or waterboard man – ‘Be ready for you in 30 minutes. The middle pound needs topping up.’ There was no one else about and with his help and the boys learning the various jobs around the lock gates, we did well. It takes time – on average 15 minutes per lock depending how much you have to wait. I think we were just short of 2 hours.

Chris wants to know and asks the waterboard man, how long it will take to Bristol. What does he want to know that for? “You might get there for six or seven o’clock.”

The industrial bit of Bath, canalside, you can miss, and the marina is a little disappointing, but the Weston Cut is impressive. Don’t go down the weirs was powerfully passed on to us by the man at the boatyard. The signs are actually quite helpful and large, so the turn to take the lock is not that much of a surprise. Having negotiated the lock we turned to look at the weir – massive gates, not to be messed with.

The trip down the Avon is super, punctuated by the occasional lock. Chris is steering through them now. I take a welcome break on the foredeck, hopeful that whoever is at the helm will be sensible. It’s a great experience just sitting there watching the riverbank go by. The boat weaves about a bit and seems to spend more time than average skirting thorn bushes and weeping willow trees. We have bursts of top speed, the bow wave frightening voles moles or whatever, creating a strong wash anyway. They have it to do I suppose.

There’s a nice man at Netham Lock who takes our money for Bristol harbour. “No, there’s no problem with moorings, they’ve just had a festival down there, pontoons all over the place. Watch it in the town, the price of beer is astronomic. These is the best spots down here.” He points to the very end of the harbour.

The approach is every bit as impressive as Bath, it’s just modern that’s all. We find a mooring on the quay in front of Lloyds TSB HQ. The harbour master suggests we wouldn’t want to be doing any cavorting, so you’m be best over ‘ere. “Does the water level go up and down?” I wondered. “About six inches, leave your ropes slack by that much.”

It’s all go, downtown Bristol, full blown yuppiedom or whatever its called these days.  Booze cruises on repro wooden pirate ships, hot air balloons, young things sat outside trendy quayside wine bars. A seagull cannot get aloft because a polythene bag has wrapped around something. We shout to passing canoeists – they do the business ‘must have done too much shopping.’

The boys and I have a drink outside Brannigan’s –  a pitcher of ale. They use the phone.  The two youngest want to go nightclubbing, so we’re left with Andrew who is well into his second funny turn. We try and find a pool table but fail. He gets turned away by the bouncer who’s guarding a lap dancing club. Wonders why the guy is so rude, but seeing as he is also huge, Andrew doesn’t argue. I finish up trying to get him into a night club, or past the bouncers on the waterfront pubs. Brannigans turns me away because I’ve got my blue baggies on – what a twit. We make into Revolution or was it Evolution. Andrew complains that we are on halves. On these prices we should have been on quarters. How do you explain the nightclub culture to an autistic boy? We must have looked a right pair.  He’s all black and moody and I’m pissed and colourful. No different to anyone else there really, except I’m geriatric. We return to the boat and Chris and Ben are sat on the foredeck in silence. They also have been turned away, for being underage. Chris has been upset by this, Ben wanted to try another, Chris didn’t.

What another crap night.

Day 5 – Bath again  Fri

We have another smashing day cruising back up the Avon to Bath.  We do a quick tour of Bristol Harbour before starting out. SS. Great Britain is sort of impressive.

I learn how to turn the boat round. We’re going up the locks today and we all learn how to fill a lock without giving the boat a pounding. The boys try surfing and fall in, or rather Chris does.

A woman bargee tells us she’s a teacher before we even say hello – why?

We meet or see another couple from S. Wales originally who now live in the south of England. Rubina if thats the correct spelling. We will go up the Bath flght with them tomorrow.

We moor on the river side below the town centre, not bothering with the trendier bits up by ‘the rec’. The GWR viaduce looks like a castle. Another pointless evening in a pub, but the boys seem to enjoy it.

Its been a really hot day with little fluid.

Day 6 – Bradford-on-Avon again  Sat

We negotiate the Bath flight successfully with a little help. The waterboard man doesn’t seem to agree with our policy of half paddles for filling locks or with ropes.

We take ages filling up with water.

Make the trip down to Bradford and moor successfully. Keep passing a man pushing a woman in a wheelchair. He overtakes and we overtake and then we lose him, around Brassknocker.

Moor carefully between two boats. One’s not impressed. Only a matter of time however before it would happen, the place is really busy and some double parking. Teacher lady and critical husband seem to know some of the other bargees, and take wine on the foredeck.  Look like two pompous consultants.

I struggle with my walking, gout started left big toe.

Dinner in the local, next to the lock. Mixed grill too much for me, but £9.

Regular passing cyclists on the towpath, any time of day, a pastime or a thoroughfare, doesn’t seem to matter.

Day 7 – The Barge and beef again  Sun

Spend the whole day in Bradford before setting off. We meet the wheelchair couple. They are from Netherton and she has MS. He’s fit, he has to be. Walks all day pushing a wheelchair.

Canoe racing on the Avon. Lots of families picnicking and playing on the recreation area.  Whole area buzzes, walkers bikers bowlers boaters eaters and drinkers.

Cardiff couple are here. Now alone. Yesterday family joined them in Bath, and spent the day and night with them on their trip along the canal. Now gone, put on the train, takes about ten minutes. We say goodbye – they have another two weeks and have the Cain flight to look forward to. She says the boat is a money hole or trap or some such.

Its a lovely setting next to the bridge outside Bradford – pity the chaotic and laddish behaviour of the boys can be so intrusive. Andrew has another do and the boys are now ignoring him. We can tolerate him for three days or so, but now its a day or two too long.

Day 8 – back to the boatyard  Mon

Chris steers us back. He hits the pontoon. Likes leaving everything to the last minute, including putting it into reverse. Cool, I guess.