On Tuesday night, we moored up at Ashton Lock on the lovely River Nene. This is a bucolic spot: sun twinkling on water; trees, fields, chirping song thrush, etc. This splendid river has offered up such spots on a regular basis and has been a special place to enjoy the riotous unfolding of spring. Happy days!
Ashton Lock is a short fifteen minute stroll from the picturesque town of Oundle. It’s famous for its school apparently, though I’d not heard of it before, and it’s typical of the sort of handsome, unsung places we have come across time and again on our travels.
Unsung no longer, however: for we had arrived the day before the “Grand Depart” of the inaugural Women’s Tour. It’s a five-stage cycling road race around the east of England, attended by the world’s best. Stage one on Wednesday was from Oundle to Northampton, and we had arrived in the nick of time to enjoy the festivities beforehand, and then the race itself.
In the tradition of Grand Tours, everyone makes a great fuss and Oundle had done itself proud. Sweet shops and bakeries display bike-shaped confections in the window. Umpteen stalls sell grub and jerseys and mugs and programmes. Fans mingle with the teams in the Co-op car park before the start. The peloton sets off amid great fanfare and jolly cheering, followed by a colossal parade of support cars, lorries, camper vans, policemen, and hangers-on.
And off they went to Northampton: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S8_y5C03mBk
Here’s a map of stage one:
One of the great attractions of road cycling is not merely the battle against one’s opponent, but also that against gravity. Climbing hills (and speeding down the other side) is what really wins Grand Tours: wiry climbers like Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome end up in yellow in Paris, not stocky sprinters like Cavendish, for whom hills are Kryptonite. “Sprinting for show, climbing for dough.”
Cycling cartographers are therefore fond of flipping things on their side. Aficionados much prefer the elevation view, or “parcours”, showing the peaks and flats of that day’s action:
It’s a geographical perspective that would have appealed to our old pal James Brindley. Mentioned before on this blog, the Brindster was the pioneering canal engineer, suggesting a “Grand Cross” of waterways linking the main rivers of Britain, and then building half of them himself.
He too knew that hills are what matter. You need to take your canal over the hill, because typically where you want to get to is on the other side. Yet you need locks, tunnels and other expensive paraphanelia to do that. Sometimes, it’s best to go round the hill instead; or follow the gentle contours of a nearby river valley to get you there in the most efficient and least costly manner.
He would have loved the elevation view: a succinct view of the real challenges facing both the cyclist or the early canal engineer.
Therefore in tribute to Brindley and to cycling cartographers – and because we have been really, really lame at updating the blog with this year’s travels – we present “Tour de Felucca 2014”: an update of our travels since we left our last winter mooring in Birmingham…
[Editor’s note to the dear reader: this is a pretty long post, you may wish to get in a cup of tea or similar before continuing! And a decent wifi connection for a few YouTube links.]
(You can still see the more traditional map by clicking the “Where we are” button on the tool bar above.)
Birmingham is more or less atop a hill. Much of its famous canal network is built on a contour 453 feet above sea level; coming into Birmingham from any direction requires climbing up a whole load of locks to get to the top.
We’d spent a happy fortnight moored up in Cambrian Wharf, waiting for the rain to stop and the River Severn to get back to navigable levels. We moored five minutes’ walk from the wonderful new library on Centenary Square, and really enjoyed spending time in the modern, traffic-free city centre; it really feels like a twenty-first century city on the verge of good things.
But the canal dweller is a nomad at heart and soon the waterways were calling. Felucca set off on a lonely, solo breakaway on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal, heading southwest. The first part of this stage is pancake flat – everyone takes it easy and zooms along at a good pace, with no pesky ascents to get in the way. The engineers were set on sticking to that 453ft level as long as they could manage, and the canal winds here and there and goes through three long-ish tunnels.
However, the inevitable can only be staved off for so long; the canal is, after all, on its way to Worcester, 400-odd feet down in the Severn valley. So at Tardebigge, everyone takes a deep breath and embarks on an insane, adrenaline-fuelled descent through the longest flight of locks (30) in the country.
With the help of Martine, Felucca and crew raced down in a pretty pacey three hours; a breakneck effort which reminded me not a little of this! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_wEG2RNMJc
After that, the descent to the Severn is gentler but nonetheless unrelenting, with 28 more locks to tackle before crossing the line. The peloton took in a few rest days in Droitwich just to keep their energy levels up, and eventually swept into Worcester at a stately pace.
Stage two was a short, sharp, one-day dash up the River Severn. With only fourteen miles and three locks to negotiate, and a big wide river to aim at, excellent progress was made, with a vigorous top speed of 6mph.
The Staffordshire & Worcestershire Canal is pretty special. It’s like one of those Tour de France stages through Provence on a glorious sunny day, with fields of lavender, ancient castles, spectacular gorges and olive trees. It looks great, the tourist board loves it, and anyone making the journey feels full of the joys of nature. Nothing dramatic happens and everyone sweeps to the finish feeling cheerful and refreshed.
It’s no surprise, then, that this is a Brindley canal. From Stourport, a steady but gentle smattering of locks takes you up to the summit at Gailey Top. And then an equally pleasant smattering lowers you down the other side. Not for James Brindley the death-defying gradients of Tardebigge. Instead, he follows various nearby gentle river valleys (the Stour, the Penk, the Sow) to make the participants’ lives nice and easy: no nasty steep hills for the J-man.
The Trent & Mersey is another Brindley special – though by this stage you might be forgiven for finding this lack of incident rather, er, soporific as the canal follows the gentle descent of the Trent valley down towards Shardlow.
There is a hiccough at Fradley, however, where our man was unable to stick to his normal gentle gradient and has to do half a dozen locks in quick succession. This sharp descent adds a brief frisson of adrenaline to proceedings, though flagging participants can take on critical fluids at The Swan public house.
There was also a hiccough in Felucca’s Grand Tour. We had planned on joining the Trent at Sawley and going downstream through Nottingham, Newark, and thence to the north, joining the Yorkshire navigations at Keadby. However, something heinous has happened to a lock on the Trent and it won’t open until mid-May: http://canalrivertrust.org.uk/notice/117/lock-8-holme-lock
Rather than hang around for six weeks for it to be fixed, the intrepid crew decide on a new plan. We would bypass the closure by nipping south on the Leicester line, down to Peterborough on the Nene, across the Wash, up the Fossdyke, and back onto the Trent some way downstream of all the problems. Not only would we get to tick off a few places on our wish list (the river Nene, Lincoln), we would also get there quicker than if we’d waited for the lock to get fixed.
Happy days! Often the best way round a problem is to take a route no-one else has thought of: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RtZhG2kWVLY
The Leicester Line of the Grand Union is beautiful but hard work, akin to a long, bumpy stage in the foothills of the Pyrenees, or the lung-busting cobbles of northern France.
First you follow the River Soar, which ascends from the Trent through a series of large and tricky locks. Above Leicester, the canal returns, but James Brindley would not approve; this is not a stage for the slacker as the locks come thick and fast, and they are tough.
Then you hit the glorious and unique Foxton Locks: two staircases, each of five chambers, take the canal up a nose-bleed-inducing 75ft in just a couple of hundred yards. Ascending Foxton locks is like inching to the top of an epic Pyrenees ascent: spectators crowd in on all sides, trying to help you and cheer you along, but more likely getting in the way: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oQgWWceYwbY
There’s a chance to get your breath back at the top though, as the canal winds for fifteen lock-free miles through splendid rolling shires. By now spring had really sprung and we enjoyed the leafy trees, wild flowers, swallows, and a rare tree creeper (that’s a bird) on the quiet, charming Welford Arm. Having done this section at the start of our travels a year earlier, we were pleased to see the progress we had made – no longer an infant with stabilisers but a hoary veteran with deft bike-handling skills!
A short, sharp drop through the staircase locks at Watford Gap (of M1 services fame, where canal, M1, A5 and railway all squeeze through a tiny gap in the hills) brought this lung-busting but spectacular 75-mile stage to a fitting close.
A short journey along the Grand Union mainline and down the Northampton branch. Quite a few locks but rather dull in all honesty!
And now to the final stage of our journey thus far, the “unsurpassingly glorious River Nene”, according to our guide book, Pearson’s. And as with most things, he’s not wrong.
The Nene becomes navigable at Northampton just outside the malty-smelling Carlsberg brewery. It then winds through 60-odd miles of beautiful Northamptonshire and Cambridgeshire, every mile or so hopping down a lock before continuing its sleepy meander through the countryside. Brindley himself couldn’t have designed it better: there are no back-breaking ascents, and everything proceeds with a minimum of hassle, leaving the crew with plenty of time to eat, drink, lounge on the roof, and step in cowpats in the water meadows alongside.
Swallows, kingfishers, sandpipers, swans and grebes pootle about industriously, and all’s right with the world. And is that the King’s Head over there by the riverside? So it is. Time to moor for the night, methinks…
And so to Peterborough, the Champs Elysees of this epic post, and where we leave our intrepid travellers, for now. Some heady adventures to come; the Wash awaits!
And who knows: perhaps we’ll come across other bike races in the months ahead…
Au revoir for now, readers!