Over the Top

Before we set off yesterday, we went in to Great Bedwyn so that Clare could admire the Post Office.  There was a smell of hot pasties wafting out and a steady trickle of customers.  We bought “meat pasties” – we might be in Wiltshire, but I know a Cornish Pasty when I see one.

Outside we fell in to conversation about the monumental masonry with another customer.  Despite living fairly locally, she had never been in to the village before.  She was intrigued with our current lifestyle and sounded interested in reading about it. If she has remembered the boat name, she might be reading this.

Clare standing outside the Great Bedwyn Post Office.  The window extends well above her head and has the main Post Office sign above it.  Well out of reach, and level with the top of the sign is a stone plaque saying "Letter Box" with a slot.
Clare under a Fake Letter Box at the Great Bedwyn Post Office

We had quite a few locks to get done so we set off fairly promptly once we had got back from the shop.  We made good progress as far as Crofton Lock.  I knew there was a pumping station there that is sometimes open, so once I’d eaten my pasty I went to see.  A huge sign on the wall said “Closed”, so that was simple enough.  A much smaller sign announced that the top lock would be secured shut at 3.30 every day.  I reckoned we still had time to do that – but only just – so I rushed back to the boat.  Clare finished her lunch as I headed off and was ready to work the lock once the boat coming the other way had come out.

These locks were fairly close together, and we were now in a hurry so I decided I would experiment with using the folding bike to speed us up.  While we were rising in the second one, I got the bike out of the bow locker and on to the lock side.  Clare took over driving as I tidied up the lock behind her.  There is a little extra to do on this flight as they are all supposed to be left empty on exit.  Going uphill as we were, this requires going back to the other end of the lock and opening a paddle.

By the time I was finished, Clare was halfway to the next lock.  A narrowboat is much slower than a bike though, so I arrived at the next lock before she had gone much further.  I would have had time to open the gates, but didn’t need to as one of them was sitting open already.  This pattern continued throughout the flight, so I might have been able to keep up without the bike, but it was a lot less tiring this way.

I was surprised to find the penultimate lock had its gates closed, and despite the paddles being open the gates were immovable.  I soon spotted the problem, one of the paddles was open at the other end too.  This would explain why there seemed to have been a lot of water flowing at the lower locks.  The canal above the lock was draining!

I shut the problem paddle promptly, and somehow got the windlass stuck on the spindle.  I went back to tell Clare what was happening, and to get a hammer to try to free the windlass.  It took a few careful blows and a lot of wiggling to release it, but I managed it before Clare got as far as the can of spray lubricant (other spray lubricants are available).

While Clare was rising in the lock, I went to survey the situation.  There were two boats moored in the pound despite notices saying not to.  The narrowboat was clearly heavily aground and listing.  The mooring ropes were under considerable strain.  Things would probably be OK when the water came back.

A narrowboat moored at the side of a canal. The boat is listing away from the bank where it has rested on the bottom as the canal has drained away.
Grounded Narrowboat Moored to the Last Lock Bollard

I started to let some water down through the last lock, but thought better of it when I realised that I was draining our route ahead.  I decided to reserve that option for later and went back to suggest Clare switch in to Glasson Branch mode.  Running the propellor takes water out from under the boat, so in very shallow water it is often unhelpful to drive fast, you just make the water shallower.  Clare switched to electric drive which allowed her to drive more slowly than most narrowboats are capable of.  I urged her to stay as close to the middle of the canal as possible – the water is usually deeper there, and suggested she coast over the cill on exit – that is the most solid part of the canal bed.

Narrowboat leaving through the top gate of a lock.  Damp marks around the edge of the lock and nearby canal show that the water level is at least two feet lower than it had been earlier.
Clare and Bartimaeus Heading in to the Partially Drained Pound

I went ahead again to properly assess the situation at the top lock.  I couldn’t judge things very accurately, but it didn’t look impossible.  I opened both gates to give Clare maximum leeway and then went back to give her encouragement and see how she was doing.  As I came back she was just passing the marooned plastic boat.  It looked so forlorn stuck on the edge that I think Clare had instinctively shied away from it.  Either way she had run slightly aground, but was handily sorting things out with a bit of reverse and bow thruster.

A view down a partially drained canal pound.  In the foreground a grounded narrowboat lists towards the canal pulling its mooring ropes tight.  Behind it another narrowboat is coming towards it as it passes a plastic boat also grounded on the canal side.
Gently Does It Passing Grounded Boats

We were both relieved when she glided in to the lock with hardly any further problems.  Despite the delay at the last pound, we were out of the top lock well before the cut off time.

We were now in the summit pound of the Kennet and Avon Canal.  The summit pound is usually engineered to be as long as possible.  Water is lost at both ends to lock movements, but this will affect the depth of a long pound much less than a short one.  The K&A doesn’t fit this description.  Its summit pound is supplied with water by the pumping station I had hoped to visit at Crofton.  The pound is only two miles long before the four Wootton Rivers Locks drop down in to a ten mile lock free section.  This section also gets its water supply from the pumping station.

Seeing the problems of drained pounds, I was keen to get on to the long section so we headed on through the Bruce Tunnel to the top lock.  Clare went ahead to operate it, but came back saying they were padlocked.  We were left with little choice but to moor up on the lock bollards.

I had a further look on the Canal and River Trust (CRT) website to see if I could find out about these unexpected closure times.  It turned out that the notices had been mis-categorised as “Advice” instead of “Opening Times”.  When I was looking, I filtered out the “Advice” – it marks the whole region in yellow to tell you to keep your (cardboard) pump out cards dry or they might not work.  I sent CRT a polite email asking them to update their notices, and then read the relevant ones.  Sure enough the locks at both end of the summit are only open between 9.30 and 3.30 each day.

We made sure we were ready to set off by 9.30, even though the forecast was for a very rainy day.  I’d noticed other boats driving with covers up and concluded that generally this canal had enough headroom that we could probably do the same.  Driving under cover was a lot more appealing in today’s weather.

View from the steering position of a narrowboat with the pram cover up.  The foreground is the roof of the boat.  On both sides trees are visible along the canal edge, a small amount of water is visible at the side
View From Under the Pram Cover

The view is slightly restricted, but since this is a double width canal with very little moving traffic, I thought it would be fine, and indeed it was.  Clare wanted to post a parcel, so after we’d done the locks we carried on to Pewsey.  The only place I could find to stop was on the water bollards.  We initially buddied up alongside a boat that had arrived just before us.  When Clare got back with more pasties (“traditional”) we decided to have a quick lunch.  Another boat arrived, so they buddied up alongside us and filled their tank from there.

We were about to move on looking for a mooring when my phone rang.  Wendy and Stuart were going to be passing near in a few hours and wanted to rendezvous.  I found a passable mooring only a short distance ahead and was pleased to find that there was a suitable parking spot only a short walk away.  We had a quick drink and enjoyable chat in Hetty, their mobile home.  It was intriguing to see a home even smaller than ours!

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