Welford to Market Harborough, 12.75 miles, 10 locks, 1 tunnel
It rained all last night and hadn't stopped when I awoke, so I had no hopes of it being a pleasant day's boating, but I'd agreed to meet Dave the engine man in Market Harborough on Saturday morning, so boat I must. After sorting out suitable boots and putting on my waterproofs, I unmoored and headed for the winding hole in Welford basin to turn round, only to find that it was blocked by people buying diesel. Having not checked my diesel levels since Aylesbury (or was it Slough) I checked it and decided it was getting low, so after the other people left I stopped and bought some. Of course the concession that the government used to make (and the EU overrode) that boaters were allowed to buy red diesel at a considerably reduced tax level, has all stopped, so Oothoon now has £121 of diesel in her tank and it's not even full! No wonder the canal magazines are full of lockable caps and whatnot--it's now actually worth nicking!
I remembered the Welford arm as being short, pleasant and winding, with a single lock set in nice surroundings, so it must have been the rain that made it seem like it went on for ages and the lock be the slowest to fill ever. To my surprise, I met another boat coming the other way, the first of only seven I saw all day. It was almost like being in an exclusive club, dressed in waterproofs and with a bedraggled and resigned look on our faces. At the end of the arm I turned back onto the Leicester branch and headed north. The sign said that Foxton was seven miles away or about two and a half hours on a good day. With all the rain, it was already not a good day.
All very uneventful up to Husbands Boswell tunnel. Sometimes the rain pitter-patted, sometimes it stair-rodded, but it never stopped. The section leading up to the tunnel is tree-lined on both sides and delightful if it was sunny; in the rain, it meant that in addition to the main body of rain coming through the gaps, there were big lumps of water falling out of the branches every time the wind caught them and being windy that was a lot. It was so unpleasant that I was actually looking forward to the peace and dryness of the tunnel--until I got in it. While it wasn't raining in there, it was misty and creepy and as the darkness enveloped me I really regretted having set off this morning. Never mind, concentrate on the tunnel, don't want to hit the side, is the engine temperature okay, plenty of diesel so won't run out, even if the engine conks the lights wills stay on, there's going to be nothing coming the other way, nothing in the tunnel, you're going to make it, stop panicking. Eventually I reached the tunnel mouth and breathed a sigh of relief, but it wasn't for long--the other side of the tunnel is also heavily wooded and I was back into rain and droplet hell.
It's about six miles from the end of the tunnel to Foxton top lock or two hours on a normal day, and can I just say how much those hours dragged. I was cold and feeling soggy, and towards the end of it, my hat was so wet that the dye was starting to come out of the leather and I had brown rivulets running down my face. At some point I also made the mistake of rubbing my cheek, which somehow dislodged the contact lens in my right eye so I was convinced I couldn't see with it. I kept looking through my left eye, then my right, trying to work out whether the lens was still in there, and whether I was focussing and judging distances properly. I even did a little jig, to try and keep myself warm. It was just awful. I know that people have pointed out to me that it's all okay because we humans are waterproof, but they don't take into account how badly we handle a loss of temperature, especially one caused by 'wind chill'. It's all a real shame, because the countryside from the tunnel to Foxton is lovely. Every now and again I'd realise just how glorious it would be if only it wasn't raining diagonally and how there's nothing really wrong with being a fair-weather boater because otherwise you'd miss the view, which is surely one of the main points of going so slowly.
Eventually I reached Foxton top lock and moored. Everyone else there had their satellite dishes deployed and their fires going, but I, like an fool, went looking for the lock keeper. Having explained that, yes, he was the lock keeper because what other idiot would be out on a day like this, he said that there was a boat coming up and I'd have to wait half an hour. Once I saw it go past, I should bring my boat to the top lock and find him. With a half hour off, I rushed back to the boat and quickly divested myself of my waterproofs, boots, socks and hat, and towel-dried my (now dyed brown) hair. To my surprise I was dry underneath, but I put the central heating on so things would start to dry. I knew exactly what I wanted to eat--a bowl of American Onion and Mushroom soup, made in 5 minutes from a packet from Aldi! It was lovely, and really heated me up.
I was just having a cup of tea when the banging of rain on the roof suddenly ceased. Looking out of the window, the rain had indeed stopped and even the ducks had started preening themselves. Just then, the boat I'd been waiting for went past, so--taking a chance--I finished my tea and got dressed in more normal weatherproof clothes, including my flat cap.
The lock keeper was waiting for me at the top lock and hustled me along without even letting me stop to take photographs. "You can do that once you're in the lock," he said, so in I went. Having determined that I was by myself, he offered to do the five locks down to the middle pound, but that I'd have to do the bottom five myself. With the lock keeper in charge, the first five locks whizzed by and even doing the bottom five myself, it was still far quicker than doing 10 locks any other way. I guess staircases are quite an efficient way of grouping locks, although it's telling that 108 years ago, when Foxton famously had an "inclined plane" boat lift, going down the inclined plane took just 12 minutes against the staircase's 70. There's progress for you.
For the bottom five locks I was using my 'drag it from one lock to the other' technique, which basically means pulling Oothoon between the locks on the centre rope, rather than climbing back aboard each time. All went well until the last lock, when, having got the front gates open, I actually had to get back aboard. The Foxton locks are narrow and there's not a lot of room between the side of the boat and the slimey, gloopy, dripping lock walls, so I didn't really want to touch them as I climbed down off the roof, but there never seemed to be a large enough gap. (You never ever want to get anything wedged between a lock wall and a boat-- with a boat having such huge mass and inertia, it'll just squash or break whatever is in the way. It's why falling in, in a lock, is so dangerous.) Eventually the only answer was to slide down the side of the boat and 'think thin', which is what I tried to do. What actually happened is that one foot slipped off the gunwale and I slid down the lock wall on my arse. I was fine, but my trousers changed colour! (Off the slime from the lock wall; what did you think I meant?)
Coming out of the bottom lock at Foxton, you immediately turn right and run in to...a swing bridge. Just to make life interesting, it swings from the side opposite the towpath, so there's no way to get back to the boat. Fortunately the lock keeper, who was at the bottom lock to supervise some people who were going up, offered to do it for me, but pointed out that I'd have the same problem at bridge 4, which is another swing bridge on the wrong side. When I got there, I moored to assess the situation and a man with a little Jack Russell terrier came along. He seemed to know how the bridge worked, having seen it in operation lots of times in the 20+ years he'd lived there. We had a look together and I pointed out the basic flaw--me ending up on the wrong side of the canal. Excitedly he asked whether he might do the swinging for me, as he'd always wanted to, so having set up the barriers across the road and having unlocked everything, I headed back to Oothoon while he swung (swang?) the bridge out. I nipped past in the boat and tied up again, and went back to help him with the barriers and the locks. He was very pleased and as we secured the last barrier, he pointed to some retaining bolts that were clearly new. He explained that a few months previously, one of the barriers hadn't been restrained properly and had swung across the road, just as a little old lady was driving past. It smashed her windscreen, but fortunately didn't hit her. He also pointed out the new railing along one side of the bridge and explained that a truck driver had been guided over the bridge by his sat-nav, realised that the road on the other side was too narrow, and had tried reversing back across the bridge, taking out the railing as he did so.
After the excitement of the bridge, most of the journey to Market Harborough was uneventful, if you count the rain starting again in earnest as a non-event. It rained pretty heavily until I was on the outskirts of the town, at which point it stopped and let the trees take over its dirty work. I knew what the journey from Welford wasn't all that short and that it was going to take most of a day, but it was getting on for 8pm by the time I arrived, meaning that I'd been travelling for best part of 9 hours. Of course there was nowhere large enough to moor at the visitor moorings so I headed into the basin at the end. Supposedly there are visitor moorings there with electrical hookup and all mod cons--for a price--but there was no-one around to ask and I didn't want to just park in case I got in trouble, so I've moored in a suspiciously empty spot just outside the basin. Suspicious because I suspect that it's actually where you're supposed to stop to fill up with water, although there are BW 'services' signs in a couple of places in the basin. I guess I'll find out in the morning.
Once indoors, it was on with the central heating again and a hot shower. Dinner was home-made cauliflower cheese. The Cauli had clearly seen better days but about two thirds was salvageable, which was enough for me. The washing up can wait until the morning, because I'm off to bed.