Wilts & Berks by Boat

We returned to ‘Twelfth of Never’ at Tuesday mid-day 16th May, and armed with the knowledge that moorings on the Upper Thames are few and 20170515_095744-001far between, we headed off from Lechlade with provisions to eat on board in the evening. We had six locks to negotiate before reaching Newbridge. This photo shows Grafton Lock on the way upstream, where the lock-keeper was on duty at the time. On our journey downstream, most of them were ‘Self Service’, but they are quite easy to operate.

Plenty of narrow-lock gates are far more difficult to move; plenty more cog-and-ratchet 20170515_114357-001paddles are a devil to start. The Thames lock-wheel mechanism is so free that some locks have been equipped with bungee cords to hold them in place.

There are two rods protruding upwards from the mechanism, as seen here at St. John’s Lock on our way upstream; it was self-service in both directions. If one rod is high and the other low, it shows when the paddles are raised (red uppermost) and when they’re lowered (white).

When filling the lock, it’s customary to half-open the paddles to avoid too much turbulence, and the rule is to control the boat with engine stopped, with ropes at either end looped around the bollards to stop sideways movement. Not that it mattered for us most of the time – ours was usually the only boat moving on the river.

Fore-warned from our journey upstream, we took the many tight bends carefully but even then, the boat sometimes continued straight when it should have turned because the river is very shallow west of Newbridge. Certainly, by the time the Thames & Severn Canal is re-opened to traffic west of Inglesham, the Upper Thames will need to be dredged to give sufficient depth. At one point, we’d had to thread our way between dozens of cattle walking across the river-bed from one side to another.

20170517_082127-001We stopped for the night just upstream of Newbridge, tied up to a small footbridge over a small drainage channel.

I think that there’ll be a need for many more formal moorings when boaters get the chance to do the one-week cruising ring on the Upper Thames via the Wilts & Berks, North Wilts and Thames & Severn Canals (which can be traced on the map from the back page of ‘Dragonfly’ issue 138).

Wednesday dawned damp from overnight rain, and there was more threatened for later in the day. We headed for Oxford, and instead of returning to the Duke’s Cut and thence the Oxford Canal through the city, we continued along the Thames. Mark was due to meet us again for the day, and I’d had a phone message from him to say that he was waiting for us under the A34 Western Bypass bridge. It rained from then on until we moored at Abingdon, where I changed out of my wet clothes and had a hot shower before heading for the Nag’s Head pub on an island in the Thames for a meal with Eddy and Susie.

20170518_091154-001At least it was sunny on Thursday morning, and we cruised through Abingdon past the iron Wilts & Berks Canal Co. bridge over the River Ock.

It was followed almost immediately by the stark metal piling wall marking the former entrance to the Wilts & Berks Canal. This route is gone for ever because Abingdon has grown so much since 1914 when the canal finally closed to traffic. The only reminder is a blue and white sign on the wall, visible to boaters.

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Dfly_102Further downstream, we spotted the ‘Jubilee Cut’, which was created in 2006 by the Inland Waterways Association when it celebrated its 60th year.

The new cut will form the eastern exit of the Wilts & Berks Canal when the old Berkshire section gets restored. The opening ceremony was described and well-illustrated in Dragonfly issue 102 from Autumn 2006. The cover photo shows boats milling around ‘Jubilee Junction’.

On our visit, there was no sign to mark the junction – and no boats. We put that right, at least for a few minutes. I decided to reverse into the cut and take a few photos. Here’s the view from the current limit of navigation looking towards the junction.

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In less than two full days of cruising, we’d covered the Upper Thames from its junction with the Thames & Severn Canal down to the new junction of the Wilts & Berks Canal.

Just think how much business will be brought to the Thames-side villages upstream from Abingdon – and along the line of the restored canals – when this cruising ring is finally unlocked in perhaps a decade from now. Swindon will then be on the tourist map…

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