This is a somewhat delayed post as it is now about three weeks since we returned from a four day and three night cruise on the Oxford canal with our chums from Oxford in their 44 foot narrow boat. This is the second such cruise we have made with them but the first was from their previous marina at Mercia north of Birmingham on the Trent and Mersey canal. Since then the boat has been moved to Ventnor Marina on the Grand Union canal at Napton in Warwickshire. Not only is this much closer to Oxford but it also affords many more options for routes on which to cruise.
Accordingly we turned left out of the marina onto the Grand Union and after a short cruise turned right, that would be north I think, onto the Oxford canal. This is an altogether smaller and more charming canal but not short of locks of which most are single width. Almost immediately we were into the Napton Locks Flight which comprises nine narrow canal locks that take the Oxford Canal up a total of 49 feet to reach Napton Toplock at Marston Doles. As this was Friday it transpired that many of the boats were hired and needed to be returned to their points of origin lower down in time for Saturday. Consequently there were many a complaint that people had waited up to two hours to come down through the locks.
When the locks are busy in this way there is much exercising of proper lock etiquette in order to move boats with the maximum efficiency and least delay. Care must be taken to check for boats coming up from below and coming down from above.
One of the really special aspects of canal boating is that you get to see the countryside from a quite different perspective to that which is usually had driving or walking. The boat is literally gliding through the fields and animals both sheep and cattle are to be seen coming down to drink and crops can be seen close up.
Some of the sheep tend to rather overdo the drinking close to the edge and on one bend we saw a sheep in the water. A boat had already warned us as we approached and another was moored up on the opposite bank to the struggling animal which was trying unsuccessfully to find a foothold on the edged bank. As we slowly cruised on though it suddenly turned and made a break for the other bank – yes a swimming sheep – and the family on the other boat managed to grab it and haul it out onto the bank. We last saw a very discomfited and embarrassed sheep running off across the fields to rejoin its fellows.
Something else that one would not expect to see in the gentle Warwick countryside are water buffalo and yet there they were. A passing boat person happily told that they were kept both for making buffalo cheese and for their meat which they had tried and found to be palatable but somewhat on the salty side.
There were some new bits of kit on the boat since our last trip all of which came in useful. The boat hook was used to fend off a floating tree-stump, the barge pole enabled us to push off to avoid grounding the boat on the entry to the Fenny Compton “tunnel” and the new ladder/gangplank served us well when mooring up at night.
Talking of mooring up, whilst we ate each night from the five-star, Michelin hatted galley of our craft, lunches tended to be of the pub variety. The pub fare was a bit variable and of the pubs themselves it was commented that they could do with “a good wipe down” in some cases. But these canal side hostelries have found an important niche in provisioning the modern boat traveller. At one point our chef declared that we needed basmati rice for the evening’s delicacy. “Some hope” I thought. Lucky to get even ordinary rice in the little grocery shop attached one of these pubs. How wrong could I have been? Your average Waitrose customer would have felt immediately at home. Not only did they have basmati rice but they had exotic fruits and vegetables, herbs and spices and all manner of foodstuffs required by any self-respecting Guardian reader about to prepare a delicious evening repast over which to exchange witty banter and bleed-heart liberal sentiments.
Finally, there was a reminder of our Amsterdam visit. It was actually padlocked and required a key to operate but if unlocked it could be lowered just by pulling the chain that is clearly visible in the picture. The bridge was actually there to allow the farmer to herd his cattle back and forth between pastures. In fact many of the bridges over the canals are for this purpose and were built as a requirement for permission to build the canals through farmers’ land.