Our voyage has now taken us 233 miles since we left Yelvertoft on 7th April. At a rather regal 3mph, and dozens and dozens of locks in between, one would be forgiven for imagining a dull, spirit-sapping trudge along an endless windswept ditch…
Yet the waterways are glorious in their variety. Compared to the motorways, each with the same signs, rules and Welcome Breaks, the canals and rivers experiment with infinite ways and means. When they were being planned and built, powerful forces dictated how they would be constructed. Most fundamentally, gravity. Horses, pedestrians, cars, and even trains can go up and down. Give them a reasonable gradient and each of these will nip up it happily enough. Boats cannot. So each waterway grapples with overcoming hills, valleys, ridges and slopes. Often, they built locks, inclined planes and incredible elevators to lift the barges up, or down, to the next level. Alternatively, the engineers shrugged and got their navvies to build round the hill instead.
Similarly, Mother Nature devised waterfalls, rapids, and great meanders to get her rivers and streams from lofty source to lowly sea, and the engineers had to grapple with these too when making such waterways navigable.
Another powerful force was technology. Earth-moving and tunnel-boring developed rapidly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Earlier canals therefore looked very different – taking long, meandering courses to minimise the earth works. Later waterways smashed through great hills and sent splendid aquaducts soaring across vales.
Economics, too, played a role. Where engineers anticipated heavy, lucrative traffic, they built the canals wide, with great, cavernous locks and bridges to match. Two small boats could share a lock, or one huge boat could get through on its own. For example, the Trent & Mersey has small locks west of Burton and large locks east of it: the beer trade from this brewery town out to the Trent justified the greater investment.
Shaped by these influences, our journey from Yelvertoft to Stratford has seen the ebb and flow of different widths, characters and styles. Going north from our starting point, we navigated a great meandering summit section before descending through the narrow staircase locks of Foxton. North of Foxton, the canal is designed for big boats with hefty wide-beam locks, originally intended to take goods to Northampton (though the wide-beam canal never made it there directly). Here, we were going downhill, eventually joining the River Soar that descends towards the Trent. The navigation channel is a mix of river and man-made canal, reflecting the ease of boating down each particular section: if dredging failed to make a section good for boating, they dug a new channel alongside. The locks are big and leaky and slow.
Meeting the Trent, we went west (and now uphill) along the Trent & Mersey, a charming early canal built by Brindley (see previous posts!). To tackle the gradient, he simply kept pretty close to the flood plain of the Trent, which already offered a gentle slope which allowed sensibly regular locks. First large, then small, locks greet the traveller going west. And the character of the journey is defined by these locks, and the direction from which you approach them. The smaller locks are more intimate, easier to operate; the larger ones intimidating and grand. Locks going upstream take longer and invite anxiety, as the great current of water entering an empty lock can throw the boat around like a twig in a fountain. Going downstream is smooth and carefree unless you forget the cill and flip your boat over.
After the T&M, we followed the Staffs & Worcs south to Stourport. Despite following a similar narrow-locked, Brindley design, the gorgeous countryside and alternate stretches of up- and downhill give the happy traveller plenty to interest him. And the grand basin at Stourport with its activity and great sea yachts give a taste of things to come…
…which is going downstream on the River Severn. A ditch barely 8m across, with bridges that require the helmsman to duck, is replaced by a 5om channel with bridges that would cheerfully dwarf a cruise ship. Woods line each bank. The locks are the size of a big house and hold 2,000+ tons of water. They are operated by a man in a cabin miles above you. And there is a current, too, which is another thing you didn’t need to worry about on the Staffs & Worcs. It’s hard not to feel like the country bumpkin arriving in the big smoke, intimidated but excited.
And now, the Avon. Another exhilarating change of key and tempo. Tewkesbury to Stratford is upstream and so follows a different pattern to the Severn. The current is still strong but instead of skittering downstream like a 15-ton steel canoe riding the rapids, one churns industriously against the current, the throttle high. And here is a scale that is completely to my taste. Not monumental and impersonal like the Severn. Nor is it soporific like the charming Staffs & Worcs. There is beauty here, yes, but also danger. Each lock has a weir or weirs that bypass the lock channel; the waters roar and the current grabs you and tries to smash you into a wall. When it rains, the water rises and the level goes from green to red in a couple of hours… This is an elemental experience: clever engineers have made the Avon navigable but there’s still enough dicey unpredictability and variation to make it a hefty old challenge, with current, trees, rocks and reeds working alone and sometimes together to make things tricky.
And it is rather gorgeous too. Wild things buzz, swim, fly and tweet. Water meadows and forests border the river. The birdwatching book starts to get frayed at the edges as we add reed bunting, cuckoo, grey wagtail, tufted duck, buzzard and kestrel to the list (more of which in a later post!). And it being spring, the water fowl are getting broody.
Man has added some pretty splendid flourishes of his own to this incomparable landscape. The river engineering is a heady mix of ancient and modern. Great stone bridges span the waters, built hundreds of years ago when goods went by horse, and still standing strong today. Eckington Bridge is very handsome and indeed inspired poetry:
The old bridges at Tewkesbury, Pershore, Bidford and Binton are also rather striking. But it is the interesting modern engineering too, especially around the locks, that marks out the Avon as something rather memorable. Elsewhere on the waterways network, the infrastructure is maintained by the Canal & River Trust (previously British Waterways), and consistently follows a simple but handsome black and white colour scheme. Most of the gates are made of wood, and most of the paddle gear to a similar design.
The Avon, however, remains independent of the CRT. After its boating infrastructure fell into disrepair, an incredible alliance of volunteers, enthusiasts, fundraisers and engineers made the Avon navigable again in the 1960s and 70s. They rebuilt the locks, dredged the channels, and brought weirs, culverts, and sluices back up to scratch. Nowadays, the river is maintained by the Avon Navigation Trust, and the infrastructure, especially on the Upper Avon, is distinct and striking. Most gates and beams are steel. The paddles, which allow water into the lock, are an unusual French design and open with great ease. Overall, the effect is modern, even modernist – these actually look like locks that might have been designed and built in the 20th century, not the 18th or 19th.
Far from jarring with the landscape, the overall effect is quite wonderful; Offenham lock, with its sparkling steel gates and unusual lighthouse, set against green fields and weeping willows, was particularly memorable. And Stratford Trinity Lock is encased in steel to prevent the chamber from high ground pressures. Employed in many a multi-storey car park, this sort of 60s metalwork is a monstrosity; here, it works admirably.
The towns that welcome the river in these parts are impressive too. Pershore is a settlement of great charm, with beautiful spacious moorings on the recreation ground. Its market bustles, its shops thrive, the Brandy Cask pub is getting on for the best so far (microbrewery, burgers, delightful garden). Pershore has self-confidence and charm, and like many towns round here, an abbey half-destroyed by Henry VIII.
After this, Evesham is less charming but nevertheless most pleasant. Many signs are in Polish and English both, as the fruit, salad and tomatoes picked nearby require a lot of hardy labour, and thus the town is home to many East Europeans.
Above Evesham, we were joined by Franklin and Liz for a couple of days, and spent fruitful hours basking in the pub, in the sun, chugging up the river, and picnicking heartily, as we passed through Offenham and what Shakespeare called “drunken” Bidford.
And now we are in Stratford, where sadly the Avon’s navigable reaches come to a shallow, hull-scraping end. We watched an excellent “As You Like It” at the RSC last night; I can’t help but get carried away and compare the play’s cheerful, carefree Forest Of Arden, to the Avon’s dreamy riverside country of meadows and birdsong…
But as Rosalind asks, “Can one have too much of a good thing?” … So tomorrow we head back onto man-made waterways, the Stratford Canal towards Birmingham, which will doubtless also have a unique character all of its own. Including, scarily, 17 locks in the first 3 miles…