Snarestone to Higham on the Hill, 13 miles, 0 locks, 1 tunnel
Grey and overcast this morning, with a slight smattering of rain. Not really the best conditions for boating, but by 11 it was a bit brighter and dryer, so I made preparations to set off. First there were the inevitable chores of emptying the loo and bins, then a quick check that all was okay and I was off.
Although it wasn't raining, it was incredibly windy today. The Ashby is a navigation that isn't very forgiving: as well as being very twisty and with a large number of 90° bends, it also seems that every time there's a twist in the canal, the engineers put a bridge on it, so if there's a bridge, you know it's going to be a tricky manoeuvre. To compound this, much of the time the only places where the towpath bank is decent is at a bridge, so those tricky bends usually have long, inhabited obstacles in the way. This is not good news at the best of times, but is particularly bad when the wind is doing its best to send you off course. Then there's the shallowness: the Ashby Canal Society's book about the canal almost sees this as a feature, describing the canal as "saucer-shaped" and saying that encountering an oncoming boat will "tend to put the unwary aground on the sticky mud". Well there weren't many oncoming boats today (two, to be precise) but who needs them when it's windy. I think this is also a canal that's easier to do one way than the reverse. At least, that's what I was finding.
I didn't do too badly at first, getting through the tunnel okay (it does have a bend in it!) and keeping to the centre of the channel. Then I got to Shackerstone. This is the place I thought had a teeny tiny aqueduct, but I was getting confused with Shenton. The Shackerstone aqueduct is much larger and adjacent to an old railway bridge, and it has a 90° bend immediately after it. I went over the aqueduct okay and started to turn, and I was turning, turning, turning; then the wind joined in and I was turning and drifting, turning and drifting, turning and drifting. Now you know it's all about to go bad when things go into slow-motion, or maybe it's that I was attempting a 90° bend in a narrowboat after an aqueduct and everything actually was going slowly, but either way the next thing I knew Oothoon had stopped moving and I was in a tree. A 67ft narrowboat is not the easiest thing to unground at the best of times, but certainly not when you're in a tree as well. I couldn't move her forwards, backwards or left or right. In fact, she was just stuck. I tried rocking her and little blips on the throttle, and several other tried and tested ungrounding techniques, but nothing worked. Meanwhile the tree, which was being waved around by the wind whipping across the aqueduct, was having a fine old time trying to knock my hat and glasses off. A family walked by on the towpath opposite, but they completely ignored me, figuring (wisely) that it was best not to get involved. I rocked Oothoon a bit and tried a few more blips. A nearby boater wandered along and lamely asked me how long my ropes were, but I think we both knew that even if they'd been long enough, I wasn't going to manage to throw them from inside a tree. Eventually some of the rocking paid off and I could move backwards, but that just took me deeper into the tree. It's obvious when someone mentions it, but trees are made of wood and those branches are very strong and very whippy when suddenly released from tension, making movement into the tree uncomfortable to say the least. Eventually I crouched down and let the tree kind of wash over the top of me, until I was out the other side, then I stood up to see that Oothoon's prow had worked free and was drifting back into the middle of the canal. Encouraged, I tried a little forward throttle and we actually moved forward, but that just took me back into the tree again. I ducked down and tried to hold the tiller steady with one hand above my head and must have managed it well enough because when I stood up the boat was free of the mud and the chimney was showing another tree that it wasn't for budging.
Feeling relieved that I'd got away lightly, I resolved to stick to the middle of the channel and be very particular on how I took corners. That all went well until Carlton Bridge, where the first oncoming boat was already coming through. Fortunately there's a winding hole on my side, so I slowed right down and headed away from the oncoming boat, letting her drag me back into the centre of the channel and in line with the bridge.
Lunch was at Market Bosworth, in exactly the same spot as yesterday. Funnily enough, the other boats in the visitor moorings were the same as yesterday too. A co-incidence I'm sure.
Coton Bridge was the next tricky one, where it's almost a 90° and a boat popped out just as I was making my final approach. Fortunately the boat was quite short and her stern moved out of the way just in time for Oothoon's prow to fill up the space and again the manoeuvre worked well, but after I got through the tunnel the perpendicular wind blew me right, onto the reeds and the mud, and my map book flew off the hatch into the reed bed. This took a bit of jiggling, because the wind seemed to gust one way, then the other. A hire boat came up behind me and stopped to watch, but I beckoned them past. Once they were gone, I managed to reverse enough to get free and in a happy co-incidence, pick up my map as I went past, but the whole thing had taken about 20 minutes.
I was doing pretty well after that. I'd realised that Hinckley—where I'd like to have got to—was out of the question, but Stoke Golding looked like a certainty and there were pubs there. This was my goal until I got to Wooden Top Bridge, which is approached via a sweeping right-hand bend. Once again the wind caught me, but I thought I was doing pretty well at countering it, even if I was travelling up the canal diagonally. But diagonally means that either end stands a chance of getting caught in the mud and this time it was the stern. With the stern not moving and the wind's assistance, the prow swung gracefully round and got stuck in the mud too. Not a problem, I thought: I could move Oothoon backwards, so all I needed to do was reverse a bit, rotate slightly, then off we go. But I hadn't reckoned on the wind, keeping the prow against the bank. If I reversed, I ended up diagonally across the canal the other way, then it was seriously difficult to get the stern out of the mud (for a change, the wind was actually useful at pushing me off). Of course, once the stern was steerable, I could turn the prow into the canal, but not enough to get a good line, which meant that the stern got stuck in the mud on the right side of the canal and the prow came back in again thanks to the wind. This continued for 30 minutes, me reversing, turning and getting stuck again. Each time I tried reversing more, hoping that I'd find a less sticky patch, but the basic problem was the narrowness of the canal and the lack of room to manoeuvre. Eventually I got back to the start of the bend, where there was a little more space, and finally I got the prow in a reasonable line. I still got the stern caught in the mud, but I was on full power and I was determined to get through. It meant I headed for the bridge at full speed, but fortunately it's straight on the other side so I slipped straight under into what felt like better waters.
I was a bit shaken by this time and the light was starting to go, but Stoke Golding was only half a mile away so everything was going to be okay. Except that when I got there, there was no-where to moor. The Ashby Boat Company, who hire out boats, are based at Stoke Golding and their boats were hogging every decent bit of bank. There was a clear space actually on the boat company's wharf, but I didn't think they'd be pleased with me using it, so on I went.
After Stoke Golding there's Higham Bridge and while Nicholson's doesn't say that there are moorings there, there's good piling and several boats. Between two of them was a decent sized gap so I decided to moor there, being careful with my approach as all of the boats seemed to be occupied. I touched down nicely and jumped off with the centre rope, only to find that the wind had caught the prow again and I couldn't stop it drifting across the canal. When it did stop, I found that the angle was such that the rudder was jammed into the piling and Oothoon was tightly wedged across the canal. I tried pulling on the centre rope to try to unjam the prow, but nothing happened. In the end, I put the boat into reverse and tried to push the stern off the piling. This managed to unjam the rudder and I jumped aboard and tried to reverse so that the prow would come away. All that happened was that the stern got jammed again, but this time with the rudder free. After a bit off too-ing and fro-ing, I got the stern free, backed up enough to get the prow free and turned enough to head along the canal without catching again. This was obviously why Nicholson's says to use designated mooring spots only.
The next one of those was at Basin Bridge—the next bridge along. By this time it was pretty dark, but there was a gap and I headed for it. I couldn't get very close to the bank, but close enough to get ashore. I pulled hard on the centre rope and got the prow in, but couldn't get the stern in. Pulling her along the bank a bit, the stern came in a little more, but by then I was running out of light and running out of bank. In the end I tied the prow up to the metal piling and pulled the stern in the best I could. It was still a decent distance from the bank, but by now it was drizzling and I'd run out of options. I made her fast as best I could, then decided that it would have to do.
Dinner was soup, followed by pasta with courgettes and soft cheese. I wasn't really in the mood for it and would happily have gone to bed after the soup, but by then it was 8pm and time to stop the engine, and once peace and quiet had descended, my appetite returned.
There's no internet connectivity here, not to mention no phone signal, which just adds to the general awfulness of my situation, but I found a couple of old episodes of UFO on the computer and an unwatched Horizon about how memory works. Apparently after you reach 40 you loose some large number of brain cells every day, so I'm glad I've written this while it's still fresh in my memory. Another part of the programme dealt with traumatic events and how your memory's 'importance' filter ranks these so high that they're effectively etched permanently into your brain. Watching that, I was wondering whether today's events would always be there, scarring me forever.
I know I said that the Ashby is a lovely canal and it is; but the canal society, rather than chasing money for getting the missing bit built, would be better off spending it on dredging or there won't be any boats able to make it to the current terminus to try the new bit out.