Norton Junction to Crick, 5 miles, 6 locks, 1 tunnel
The weather really couldn't make up its mind this morning, having long periods of rain, but dry pockets along the way. It was in one of these that Paul and I set off for our breakfast venue--Watford Gap Motorway Services. Now I know that most people arrive there on them round things, but how much more fun to go by water. I've stopped there loads of times and never realised that the canal runs right along the back of it. There's even a handy gap in the hedgerow by the lorry park, where you can climb over a fence and get in (which, I assume, is what Nicholson's is referring to by the phrase "is by no means inaccessible from the towpath"). Other than the novelty of the 'vehicle' in which we've arrived, Watford Gap is still the same, complete with bait'n'switch meal deals like the "traditional" breakfast (£4.99) and the "classic" breakfast (£6.99 but including an extra sausage or something). Both are advertised on the same board, except that they only do the cheaper "traditional" breakfast at, er, breakfast time. In the end we plumped for breakfast at Wimpy.
Something we'd noticed in the half-hour
drivecruise to the motorway services was how grumpy everyone was. In particular, we were approaching a bridge and an old couple who'd just come under it in a very handsome boat, give us the filthiest looks. I think it's because there was a tree branch in their way and they'd needed to use their bow thrusters to avoid it, when clearly we should have given way to them, even though it was on their side of the canal and we were right over by the towpath where it was so shallow that I was convinced we were going to ground any second. The gumpiness continued in the service station, with everyone but us looking like they were having a really miserable day. We kind of got an inkling why when we got back on board the boat and the heavens opened. This lasted for a little while, while we looked blankly at each other and with amazement when a boat chugged past. Eventually the rain thinned to a drizzle that continued through most of the afternoon and we kitted ourselves up and set off...round the corner and straight into Watford locks. I really thought they were much further away and was quite unprepared for them.
The locks at Watford are narrow, as on the Aylesbury arm, and there are two normal locks with mini-pounds between them, then a staircase of three, then another mini pound, then the top lock. As they're narrow locks and boats can't pass except in the intermediate pounds, and due to there being a staircase in the middle, there's a lock keeper on duty and you have to enter a queue to go up or down. The lock keeper wasn't around, so I took the opportunity to pull over to the nearby water point to fill Oothoon's water tank. The tap had two outlets--a push-on hose connector and a screw-on one. The screw-on end was larger than that on my water hose, but I found an adapter skulking about in the cupboard. Next was the problem that every time I tried to turn the tap on, water also gushed out of the other outlet. After trying a variety of ways to stop this--most of which consisted of sticking my finger over the end (and you can guess what happened when I did that!)--I accidently found that if I just turned the handle all the way over to the screw-on hose side, the other side shut off. It really could do with a little sign to that effect--I'm sure everyone has fun and games with that tap.
Tank filled, we found the lock keeper in her office at the top of the flight and she gave us permission to travel up to the 2nd pound. There was another boat already in the top lock, so they would be down there by the time we were. We rushed down the hill and went through the first lock, with Paul managing the gates and paddles perfectly. The man from the descending boat had opened the 2nd lock's bottom gates, so we whizzed through there, but then saw that their boat was still in the bottom of the staircase. They were insisting that I pull over to the right hand side of the pound so that they could get a good line from one lock to the next, but as far as I could see that was impossible unless there was some way of making a boat go sideways. Having come out of the lock and tried, and pirouetted in the pound uselessly, I did what I'd originally said I'd do and drove over into the far corner of the pound. This left plenty of space for them to get past and didn't rely on manoeuvres that were against the laws of physics.
The staircase was exciting for three reasons: (1) it was a three-in-a-row and I'd only done two; (2) it had side ponds, so there were extra 'red' paddle controls; and (3) it was going to be Paul doing the paddles while I was on the boat. The lock keeper had already taught us the little jingle "Red before white, you'll be all right; white before red, you're dead", as an aide-memoir of the right sequence in which to operate the paddle gear, but Paul and I walked through it before starting and then I jumped off the boat to be there while he did the first one (largely because I didn't want to miss the excitement). What it actually means is that once you've closed the bottom gates, there'll be a red paddle control either halfway along the lock (or sometimes just after it) and also a white paddle control. You open the red one first to let water out of the side pond, then (if you're going up) you open the white one to let water from the next lock into this one. Once the lock is full, both sets of paddles are closed and you can open the gates and move the boat into the next lock. You also need to set the staircase correctly before you start--in the case of going up, all the locks should be empty of water, which as a boat had just come down, they were.
Paul managed all the locks perfectly and even claimed that they were easier than those of the day before. I was incredulous of this, until he pointed out that because the gates are smaller, they were easier to move and he'd had problems with the big gates. We had a brief chat to the lock keeper, then set off, leaving the top gates open for the approaching boat--filled with grumpy boaters.
Just round the corner from Watford locks we had a quick comfort break and a cuppa, then headed for Crick tunnel. At 1,528 yards (0.87 miles/1.4km) the Crick tunnel isn't as long as Blisworth, but it's equally wide allowing two narrowboats to pass. I was confident that we wouldn't meet any other boats in the tunnel, which was good because it was filled with mist. I'd put all the lights on, including the tunnel light, but was having difficulty keeping the boat in the middle of the 'arch'. I eventually worked out that this was due to Paul's jumping around trying to take photographs, which was distracting, however after he'd taken a few he calmed down and things went a little easier. I was quite nervous though--partially because of my experience at the end of the last tunnel, but also because visibility really wasn't very good in the mist. Eventually we got within 600m of the end and you could just make it out in the distance, but the whole thing was cold and damp and wet, and not pleasant at all. Paul, however, was thrilled with the whole thing and kept looking around in the vague hope that there would be something supernatural stalking us.
Tunnel over, we were in Crick. Crick is another 'canal' village, like Stoke Bruerne, and there were lots of boats about. We eventually found a spot just after the end of Crick Marina and moored. Hot showers and a change of clothing later, we were feeling a lot better.
Although we'd bought Vesta Paella's in ASDA in Hull as a dinnertime treat, we decided to go into Crick for dinner. The Red Lion didn't do food on Sundays, The Wheatsheaf had just stopped serving, and we were directed to The Royal Oak where we were told we could get Chinese food. So it turned out, and they were friendly and accommodating, the Chinese food was good and we didn't get too wet on the way back, the everlasting torch once again proving invaluable. We were exhausted, but never grumpy.