Aldermaston (six days left)

This winter has been incredibly wet and, from reports from our friends in France where we have left our boat, it has been the same over there.  On the other hand, it has been exceptionally mild and, so far, we have only had one day where frost has remained on the ground all day.  Some of our boater friends in the Midlands and the north have had days where the water has iced over, but we have yet to encounter that here in the south.

Mentioning where we left the boat, Châlons-en-Champagne, our neighbours sent us a picture on Wednesday as the first hotel boat of the season came through the town. It must have been on a training run as I can’t believe people would be holidaying at this time of year.

First hotel boat to come through Châlons since winter
Wednesday was water day for us so yet another trip down to Aldermaston Wharf to fill up.  This meant going down and up the only lock we have been using this winter for the umpteenth time!  Last time we did it I reported that a kingfisher had been watching us for most of the operation.  This time, the kingfisher wasn’t to be seen, but an industrious greater spotted woodpecker was hard at work looking for insects on the trunk of the same tree.  In fact, we have been watching a greater spotted woodpecker from the dinette window for the last week or so.  It seems to have taken up residence on the trunk of a large tree on the bank opposite us.

Nothing untoward happened during our short trip but a couple of dozen ramblers stopped to watch us turning the boat around and going up the lock.  When we were going up the lock, most of the group were at the back end talking to Karen who was doing the driving.  I was at the top end explaining to the rest of them how locks work – I hasten to add that they did ask me to explain!  Karen was too embarrassed to take a picture of the main group who were leaning over talking with her.

Karen thought I was giving another masterclass by the lock gate 😉
It was rather good having the onlookers as they were eager to open and close the gates when instructed, particularly as the gates on this lock are quite difficult to get moving.

On Thursday we met up with boater friends in a pub near Oxford and spent a pleasant few hours catching up with each other’s adventures and plans for this year.  All of us had our current boats built up at Aintree and poor Chris & Sue have had so many teething problems that it has become a bit of a joke.  I knew they had a double bed that converted to a full king size at night with an ingenious manual method of extending the mattress to the larger size.  I mentioned that the bed on the boat we are borrowing has a similar arrangement but with the added benefit of being operated electrically.  This, of course, set Chris off recounting the possible phone calls he would have had with the builders as he encountered one problem after another if he had spec’ed the same arrangement.  At least Chris & Sue can have a good laugh about their stories 😊

Coincidentally both Chris & Sue and Mike & Lesley have included the Kennet & Avon canal on their cruising plans for this year.  Hopefully the river levels will have gone down enough for them to realise those plans.  Included in our plans for this year is the highly likely process of shipping our boat back to the K&A in October.  If we do, who knows, we may be able to cruise together for a while – something we haven’t done for nearly two years.

On our way up to Oxford we found a really well-preserved Victorian post box in an out of the way place called Garford.  Considering the box was cast in 1859 the various inscriptions were very clear.

An 1859 VR box manufactured by Smith & Hawkes in their Birmingham foundry…
…in a rather pretty location too
Continuing our theme of meeting up with people before we leave next week, Heather came down for lunch on Friday and we had a good walk around the gravel pits at Aldermaston.  Later on, we popped over to meet Lauren & Lewis at the Black Boy in Shinfield as they were having a late lunch there with Ellis.  In the evening Steve & Tina came around from next door and we all went to the Fox & Hounds at Theale where we had a great evening with Ken & Annie.  The pub advertises itself as the dog friendliest pub in England and it certainly was very dog-welcoming with dog beds and cushions everywhere and a dog treat menu available.  Ironically we didn’t take Buddy as there wouldn’t have been space in the car with Tina & Steve and their two even larger dogs as well.

On Saturday afternoon we went to another Fox & Hounds, this one was in Caversham around the corner from Lauren & Lewis.  We had chosen this pub as dogs are allowed and they were showing the six nations matches.  When we turned up, we felt a bit like our Scots friend Alan as there was only one other customer.  Alan and his wife Alison live in Largs where he prides himself on being the “Clearance man”; he is often posting on social media pictures of him and his pint in totally empty bars.

The Clearance man has been in
It didn’t take long for the pub to fill up though and by the time it was nearly kick off for the Wales – France game it was packed out.  We decamped around to Lauren & Lewis’s to watch that game with them.  Carrying on his father’s tradition, Ellis is being brought up a Wales supporter and we could see how much he had grown as two weeks ago his kit completely dwarfed him 😊

On Sunday morning Catherine sent us a picture of herself at work during the week.  She moved over to Barcelona a couple of weeks ago and has been teaching English as a fill in job while she finds work as an interpreter.  She is loving the teaching, especially when the audience is composed of children rather than adults as can be seen here:

Cat (being Cat) in teaching mode
Sophie & Yanos came over to spend the day with us on the boat and we spent the afternoon avoiding hearing the result of the England-Ireland game before we watched it later in the evening.  We spent Monday in Reading and in the evening went out for an ‘au revoir’ meal with the Reading half of the children. 

The remainder of the week will be spent getting ready to return to Châlons and saying goodbye to other friends that we haven’t caught up with yet.

Aldermaston (time for friends)

I mentioned in the last blog update that we really needed to start catching up with friends before returning to France, so we have now begun a concerted effort.  I have to admit we’ve still been popping into Reading to see Ellis on most days though.  We are both beginning to realise how difficult it’s going to be not seeing him for a few months before we return for our annual family camping trip in August.  We are secretly hoping that Lauren will bring him out to see us on the boat before then 😉 

Pam & Charles also live in Reading and we finally met up with them one afternoon.  I say finally because we have been in touch many times over the last couple of years but always by phone or electronically.  They moved their widebeam to France over ten years ago and returned to the UK and sold their boat a couple of seasons ago.  Because of their length of experience over on the mainland and also their willingness to share, they became brilliant reference points for us during our planning.  Many other boaters we have met have also taken advantage of their knowledge and experience too.  They are the sort of people that make the simplest or naivest question feel important and never talk down to you unlike some people who seem to know everything and want to let you know it.  So, thank you Pam & Charles for your help in the past and hosting us in your home last week.

As I have often mentioned, we have been stuck on a cut between two river sections since borrowing Ceilidh at the end of December.  Luckily, we have a water point and a pump out station in the same section and with so much wet weather around we always make sure we are facing in the right direction ready for the next trip. When we returned from filling up with water a week or so ago we couldn’t turn around as the river flow at the turning point was too high.  The water levels started dropping and we were able to turn on the Thursday before the storm arrived.  When we returned from spinning around, we decided to moor next to Steve & Tina as there were fewer large trees around them, compared with where we were previously moored, so we would feel a bit safer during the strong winds.

Heading for the river section to turn
We’re now moored behind Steve & Tina’s fat boat rather than a few boat lengths farther up

That evening we went around to Steve & Tina’s for curry and drinks.  Steve seemed to be particularly impressed with the curry Karen had made as it was a lot hotter than those they usually have because Tina is not so keen on hot curries.  The following day we met  Maureen & Ali at the Butt for lunch and had a good catch up; hopefully we will be meeting up with Maureen in France this year as she and Garry have a home in Metz and plan to be there when we’re travelling through.

Storm Dennis arrived on Saturday, the day I was meeting my youngest son, Jake, at Southampton for football.  We were half expecting the match to be postponed and the weather was indeed terrible, probably more so than at Aldermaston as it’s a coastal city.  I suspect the main reason it went ahead was becuase it was being televised.  As usual we played well in the first half and gave up in the second as seems to be the way with home matches lately.  After watching yet another loss we both had very slow journeys home because the trains were badly affected by the weather.

On Sunday we met up with my eldest son, Chris, and his fiancée, Cee, for lunch.  It’s been a while since we had last seen Chris, so we had a lot to catch up on and it was also good to meet Cee for the first time.

Monday was to be our last quiet day; our last day on our own before heading back to Châlons. During the morning we walked up to Woolhampton which is in the opposite direction to that which we usually walk.  It wasn’t long before we joined the river section and the flooded fields and woods.  Fortunately, the towpath was generally high and therefore not flooded.  There were just a few places where it was lower and we had to walk through the water running across our path.

The River Kennet has escaped into the woods
There is a lock and a swing bridge at Woolhampton, both of which are notorious and can be difficult to negotiate even in summer conditions.  The bridge is downstream of the lock and it can be very tricky trying to moor between the two in order to operate the bridge.  Because of this it is recommended that the bridge is swung open before leaving the lock.  This does mean road traffic is held up a little longer but at least it is safer.  Saying that, I can remember a couple of occasions coming through when I haven’t really felt in control and definitely wouldn’t have been able to stop and would have hurtled straight into the bridge if it hadn't been open already.

Lock to the left and the bridge behind us
The river is coming out to the left of the lock and you can see that going upstream would also be difficult in a strong current.  The current pushes boats across to the right when they are trying to get into the lock – hence all the tyres on the side of the permanently moored boat.

Although it wasn’t forecast, it started raining while we were at Woolhampton so we popped into the Rowbarge for a drink.  It used to be a favourite of ours when we cruised the area especially as it was dog friendly.

Enjoying a pint on Monday lunchtime
We were reminded of an evening at the pub nine years ago when Karen and I went for a meal on my birthday.  Unbeknownst to me, Lauren and her friend Emily, had prearranged with Karen to turn up and surprise me.  They arrived before us and I remember thinking I recognised the girls who were sitting in quite a dark area.  I didn’t feel it was appropriate to stare and it took me quite a while to realise it was my daughter!

Over our drinks we finalised our plans for returning to France and when we got home I booked a crossing for the morning of Monday 2nd March leaving us with just 13 nights to go. 

Aldermaston (soon be back in France)

Karen & Buddy bringing Ceilidh up Aldermaston lock
It seems like the last three weeks have been spent with family so we really must get around to catching up with friends before we leave the UK in a few weeks 😉 Mind you, it’s all been necessary stuff; for example, I went up to Yorkshire to see my dad and also spent a day moving Cat out of her flat in London ready for her move to Spain.

Although we’re in the tail end of storm Ciara, the rain I encountered whilst in Yorkshire was far heavier than during the storm.  We have our car serviced by the village garage and the deluge started during my walk to go and pick it up.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t prepared for the weather and Buddy and I got absolutely soaked, worsened by the splashing from passing cars driving through puddles.  Without a spare pair of trousers, I had to drive back to Aldermaston wearing them – I didn’t feel, as the only occupant of the car, I would get away with driving with no trousers on.  They were still wet when I got home, and I blame that on a cold I picked up that lasted over a week and prevented us from seeing Ellis.

Ellis, at nearly seven pounds, has now doubled his birth weight and is still a week away from his due date:

We don’t really want to mention Karen’s back but suffice to say a couple of train trips to London to see a specialist in Harley Street seems to be putting her in the right direction.  Mentioning trains, we have been catching them quite regularly to see our Reading daughters – to be honest, it’s to see our grandson but we don’t tell Sophie, Lauren and Polly that. 

We use Lauren’s address in Caversham to have things delivered and last week we picked up the waterways guide for the Luxembourg and German areas we will be travelling this year.  Unlike, guides for France, Belgium and Holland we couldn’t find any guides that have English text as well as the principal language.  I know it may not seem a problem, but important items can get lost in translation which could be crucial, especially on large rivers with commercial traffic.  Oh well, at least Sophie is a fluent German speaker and will be at the end of the phone.

A page from our new German guidebook
The guidebook looks to be very detailed and each page is plastic coated which hopefully we won’t need to take advantage of during the summer months.  The guides are clearly not designed for narrowboaters as they are so large; they would be much more at home on larger vessels.  I know when we first saw a French guide we thought it was big, being twice the size of our UK ones, but the German one is double the size of the French ones!

A3, A4 & A5 sizes
One thing I will need to get Sophie to do before we venture back to the mainland is a translation of the phrases I know we will need when communicating on the radio with German lockkeepers and suchlike.  Notice I say mainland rather than Europe, that’s because, like President Macron, I believe we are still Europeans.

Jo has come down from Edinburgh for a couple of weeks as she is determined to get an apprenticeship at Saville Row.  She has been lodging with different friends in London and stayed with us for a couple of days, so she was able to catch up with her sisters too.  So far, she has been really successful and been offered work experience by a couple of the houses she has visited.  It really shows that turning up in person gets her further than sending random emails.  

Jo with Ellis
As you can imagine there are still red boards up on the River Kennet, so we are still unable to go cruising. Our only option is to go down to Aldermaston Wharf and back as we are on a non-river section.  Fortunately, there is a water point at the wharf and also a sanitary station where we can do a manual pump out, so at least we get the chance for a short cruise. With yet another wet week coming up we decided to fill up with water on Monday before the supply became critical.   

Storm Ciara didn’t seem to affect us as much as some parts of the country and only a few small trees had come down but nothing to stop us going to get water.  It was still really windy but at least it was lovely and sunny when we set off.  A tree had come down across one of the lock gates preventing us from opening it but as we only need one of the two gates open it didn’t hinder us.

Tree across balance beam
We pulled up the short wharf arm for services and while I was outside getting ready to do the pump out Karen caught my attention by knocking on the window.  She had noticed a kingfisher perched on a branch next to the boat.  It seemed to be watching us with great interest.  Amazingly it stayed there all the while we were doing our jobs and also during a late breakfast we had before setting off again.  It flew off several times, always returning to the same branch to studiously watch us.

There is a recessed step in the back deck that collects water when it rains.  The water runs through a drain hole, into a pipe that runs into a large water container.  When Ken was showing us over the boat before we borrowed it, he said we wouldn’t need to worry about the container filling up as he so rarely has to empty it.  He (we) clearly hadn’t realised how much rain we were going have over the last few weeks as, when I checked it before heading back up the lock, it was practically full!

It won’t need emptying Ken said 😉
It wasn’t the easiest of manoeuvres to get back out onto the mainline and into the lock as the wind had really sprung up again.  We managed it in the end even if it took a lot longer than it would normally have done and we were also lucky that there were no gongoozlers around to watch the spectacle.

We got back to our original mooring spot unscathed and moored up between Murphy and Ajax again.  We were now facing in the opposite direction having decided not to go up and turn around first.  The next turning point is where the cut leaves the river and the flow was too strong to risk doing it.

On Monday we cruised one mile through two locks.

Before I go, I have to mention something that happened when I moved Cat out of her lodgings in London last weekend and it was so Catherine that I know she won’t mind us mentioning it.  We packed the car up with all her belongings and drove up to Wendover to leave them with her Grandmother while she lives in Spain.  Cat stayed in Wendover overnight and I drove back to the boat.  As I was taking my stuff out of the car, I noticed her phone on the floor.  As she was flying out in a couple of days it was rather critical that the phone was returned to her.  We were up in London the following day for one of Karen’s appointments, so Cat also came into town to pick up her phone.

It was good to see her again and we walked to Paddington rather than catching a tube so that we could look for VR boxes on the way (none found!).  We were just saying goodbye to Cat when she realised she couldn’t find her foreign currency debit card.  It was panic stations for a while as she went through her backpack, but it turned out to be a false alarm as she found it had slipped down to the bottom!

Cat having goodbye cuddles with Ellis
Hopefully, in the next blog update we can report that Cat has found a job in Barcelona 😊