24th August to 6th September 2012
My husband Dave and I had volunteered to crew Python for two weeks of her tour. Going on board at Alvecote Festival, moving her on to Shackerstone Festival and then to Fradley to hand over. Although we have both got lots of experience at steering different boats and we have our own boat, our experience of Python was very limited and it caused us some concern when the news came through from the previous crew that she was taking on excessive amounts of water into her bilge ! We were advised to arrive at Alvecote at the earliest opportunity so we could monitor the bilge pump to stop her sinking! For those of you who are not familiar with Python the accommodation is best described as basic. Camp beds in the hold under the “cloths”. This was going to be our summer holiday! We both enjoy a modicum of comfort and here we are volunteering to take charge of an ancient bit of iron which has the most basic accommodation on board and was slowly sinking. What on earth possessed us to do this? I took a deep breath and reminded myself it was going to be an adventure! I heard my subconcious cry “But I don’t do camping!”
We found Python in Alvecote Marina towards the end of a line of very distinguished and venerable old boats all looking resplendent with their brightly painted cabins and chimney chains freshly polished. We went about installing ourselves. We monitored the bilge and were somewhat surprised to see that while there was some water in there, it was not excessive and showed no apparent signs of there being any more coming in. It is well known among the owners of historic narrow boats that sometimes they will start to take on a little water but no one seems to get too excited about it. After all I expect my bottom might leak a little if it had been in water since 1929!
The organisers of the Historic Narrow Boat Gathering at Alvecote were determined to ensure that the boaters had a good weekend There was plenty of good food, good beer and music and spent a pleasant the evening in the company of friends old and new. That night, as we settled down, we realised how little noise insulation the cloths of the boat offer when you sleep under them. The railway runs adjacent to the canal and they were doing some engineering works that night. The heavy rain was not exactly quiet either! An adjacent boat had an automatic bilge pump which ran several times focussing my mind on the fact we had been told Python was taking on water and meant I did not sleep much – I did mention I don’t do camping didn’t I?
The next morning revealed no more water in the bilge than the night before which was puzzling. We erected our stall in the festival and I manned it while Dave prepared Python to take part in the historic boat procession. He did very well to handle her in a very slow moving line of boats on their short journey. What neither of us anticipated was that such a very short journey would take the best part of 3 hours to complete and so by the time he came back over to the stall it was time for us to pack everything away again. It had been a very busy and enjoyable day. The next day, after setting up the gazebo again, Dave headed off to prepare for the parade. This time he had crew! A couple of our friends had handed us a membership form for the Trust the night before and so Dave was joined by Ange & Dave Laws and their little dog Millie on board for the parade. Millie is a boat dog and spends her waking hours patrolling boat roofs. She is very used to her family spending time on a variety of different boats and so, having been lifted onto Python’s roof, she immediately started her usual roof patrol and as Python went out on the parade the new four legged crew member patrolling the roof was a star attraction among the crowd watching and she became the focus for a lot of camera lenses. This time, as the boats on parade winded outside the pub, there were a panel of judges who gave each steerer a score. Maybe it is a good job that Dave did not realise that when he set off, but, considering he had so little experience of steering Python, his score of 8/10 was extremely impressive (although in truth I suspect the scoring was done with tongues firmly in cheeks). The commentator had lots to say about Python, he also described Millie as a “long tailed, short legged lurcher” to the amusement of the audience (Millie is a Corgi /Jack Russell cross).
Tuesday morning dawned and after a wonderful bank holiday weekend it was time to untie the ropes and get Python out onto the open canal. Earlier in the year we had arranged to cruise up to Shackerstone with some friends of ours Sandra & Ken who have a charming little historic ice breaker called Baltic. We had a thoroughly pleasant chug and it gave me a chance to take Python’s tiller for the first time. It is only a few miles before you have the 11 locks at Atherstone to ascend and all was going well until the water level in one long pound was around 2 feet below normal and the Old Lady decided to firmly plant herself on the bottom at every opportunity. It caused us a frustrating delay but by allowing other boats to pass each way,each bringing more water into the pound and with the help of families from other boats pulling ropes and pushing poles we and the boat following us, which was also grounded, were freed and we got her into the lock. Eventually we got her to the top arriving a good hour after Baltic . The curry house in Atherstone was the place to be that night as we celebrated Ken’s birthday. Oh and the bilge water situation? There was maybe a little more in there but nothing to concern us. During this section of the journey we also had to empty the loo giving me the opportunity to give it a good clean – it is possible to tell that the crew on this boat are predominantly male! I will just describe it as being GRIM! We had been warned that it needed the flush mechanism repairing. I had a fiddle with it to try and repair it and managed to dislodge another part so gave up. Did I mention I don’t do camping?
Wednesday was wet. There is not a great deal more that can be said. We waited to see if it became any less wet but it didn’t and so in the end Sandra and I were the only crew that were man enough to put on our wet weather gear, untie our ropes and set off, leaving the males to stay below in the dry. We just went a short distance up to the Anchor at Hartshill, a much loved boaters hostelry which serves good, reasonably priced food and beer. I adored steering Python. I get bored steering our own boat but Python commands respect and concentration. She is starting to charm me. Of course now I had wet clothes to deal with and a toilet that did not flush. There is a compound next to the canal at Hartshill which starts moving stuff at 7am using loaders which make a “peep peep” noise every time they reverse. The bilge water has risen noticeably – perhaps it is the rain? Did I mention I don’t do camping?
On Thursday, we headed onto the Ashby Canal. We love this canal, it has character and charm. It is very shallow and Python did, on occasions, feel more like a slowed down version of a roller coaster ride as she rose up and rolled around debris on the base of the canal. What was more concerning is that we were now noticing the bilge water rising. There was no rain and so, for the first time on our duty, we were witnessing what the previous crew had reported. It seemed that when static, or running slowly, no water comes in, but when cruising at normal canal speed it does. The previous day we had put it down to rainwater but now there was no rain but there was bilge water, plenty of it! As we came to terms with the need for someone (that would be Dave then!) to periodically duck down into the engine hole to work the temporarily fixed bilge pump, we noticed the charging light had come on. A quick check pointed to a suspect alternator. We pulled over at Limekilns and called River Canal Rescue. We were now faced with a boat that was taking on water and no way to keep the batteries charged to run the bilge pump. Perhaps now would have been a good time to start worrying? River Canal Rescue arrived, removed the alternator and took it to be repaired. Just two and a half hours later it was refitted and we were on our way again and managed to catch up with our friends on Baltic by chugging along till sunset enjoying beautiful countryside and a brilliant red sky as the daylight dimmed.
On Friday morning, we woke shivering with the realisation that it had been the first frost of the year! Maybe if I was used to camping then our sleeping bags might be a tad more substantial? Just in case you were in any doubt, I don’t have any plans to get used to camping though! Onwards we chug, pumping the bilge as we go. It was a beautiful crisp autumnal morning with wisps of mist rising off the canal, a stunning morning to be boating! At Shackerstone we had been allocated a spot next to Panther, which is the sister ship of Python and belongs to Coventry Canal Association. Python once again took her place among a great throng of colourful historic boats with gleaming brass work and brightly painted water cans. We had a lovely spot right by the aqueduct. Then I saw Eva Thompson coming along the towpath with a large bundle in her arms – warm blankets! I wanted to hug her! These were indeed life-saving supplies for us poor refugees! We left Python for a short while to seek out some food and when we returned we found that Paul Barber, the boat engineer who was due to carry out the work on her after her tour, had sneaked on board while our back was turned and fitted Python with an automatic bilge pump for us. Great peace of mind and much less hassle than the previous temporary set up! Now we have blankets to keep warm and we are far less likely to sink. Such luxuries – we are spoiled.
The Shackerstone Festival was in full set up mode that night but the beer tent was open and on a cool, dark and rainy night it only seemed right to sample one. It was not long before the lack of decent sleep started to catch up on us, so we headed back to Python. The only access to Python was by walking over the back of Panther (carefully to avoid causing her to rock too much as her crew were on board) and shimmying down the gunwale to the middle of Python. In the dark and wet, I negotiated my way, there was a fender rope to climb around and the chimney was hot. One foot went splosh into the water between the two boats. Now I had an extremely wet boot and some bruises too. I settled down to try and sleep. The funfair in the adjacent field had music playing and there was a beer festival at the pub a short hop away in the village. They had a marquee in the beer garden with a band playing. The combined noise of the two musical genres in competition stopped me hearing the rain on the cloths though and at least I was no longer concerned that I might wake up in the night submerged! Did I mention I don’t do camping?
The weekend was lovely on the towpath. We set up our stall and chatted to people as they passed. We were joined on both days by David & Helen Dawson to assist with manning the stall. The towpath was busy with people walking along to enjoy the colourful spectacle of all the historic boats and making their way to Shackerstone Station across the other side of the canal where they had steam trains running all weekend.
Monday morning dawned and, as we had to be up early to allow Panther to leave from its mooring bankside of Python, it seemed silly to simply re-tie her when we could get chugging ourselves. So, with a heavy mist in the air, that old Lister engine rattled to life and we headed off past the long line of moored boats of all shapes, sizes and descriptions that had gathered to enjoy the festival. I love chugging along in the early morning. There is something so splendid about being on the boat whose bow is the first to break the surface of the canal on a tranquil morning. Even if it is a boat with an air cooled Lister engine rattling right under your ears as you steer! Before long the sun broke through the mist and we arrived at Sutton Wharf. I had been looking forward to arriving here for a long time. At Sutton Wharf there are boaters’ facilities which include proper showers! Oh my goodness I cannot describe how good it felt to stand under a stream of hot water after over a week of being extremely thankful to the person who invented baby wipes! Did I mention I don’t do camping?
We continued on our way to the junction on The Ashby Canal in glorious sunshine and once again enjoyed the beautiful countryside along that stretch. We discovered the farm shop at Bridge 23 does the most amazing pork pies, bacon and sausages. Turning right at the junction, our plan was to get back to the top of Atherstone locks that night. We had been in discussions with others on the Python management team and it had been decided that, as the water leak is a worry and we had time during our crew duty to do so, we would push on past Fradley and instead continue all the way up to the Erewash Canal to Paul Barber Boat Builders, where they planned to lift her out of the water. Once she was there we knew they would keep an eye on her until she came out of the water. As we chugged our way along the Coventry Canal through Nuneaton, we caught up with the historic boat Kestrel which was towing the butty, Northolt, on a long line. The boats were loaded with coal and it was a wonderful sight to see them sitting low in the water and being operated in a traditional manner. We had purchased some coal from the guys on Kestrel while at Shackerstone. At a distance we followed them for a while, happy to travel slightly slower and enjoy watching them use their boat handling skills to navigate around the twist and turns and through bridge holes while towing. They were tying up at the Anchor at Hartshill for the night. We planned to carry on the short hop to Atherstone but, as we went to pass them, they called to us to join them for a pint in the pub. Python’s drive went into reverse quite quickly at that suggestion. Well it would have been rude to refuse! We tied up there with them and spent a very pleasant evening taking about all things canal related, and otherwise, over a particularly good meal in the Anchor.
Tuesday dawned. The noisy loaders in the yard next to the canal, gave us our wake up call. (Did I mention I don’t do camping?) We had been so fortunate so far with the weather it was another beautiful sunny morning. We headed off through Atherstone locks and continued on our way in the sunshine ticking off the canal places as we went Polesworth, Alvecote, Amington and Tamworth. We continued through Fazeley Junction. All this territory is so familiar to me as I spent 30 years living in Tamworth. We had decided to moor up around Hopwas that night but it was such a lovely day to be chugging and now we were back out into open countryside, so we just kept going. Huddlesford, Whittington, Streethay – there are either railway lines or a dual carriageway close by – we were now very aware of the need to find somewhere fairly quiet to tie up if we wanted to sleep! We kept on going to reach Fradley and find a Python shaped mooring. We wandered up to “The Mucky Duck” at the junction and there were some Morris dancers performing outside. The musicians then moved into the cellar bar and we enjoyed another lovely evening of impromptu entertainment from a melodeon, a violin and a banjo player there. One of the guys sitting by us was playing the bones and showed us how it is done. Fascinating!
On Wednesday morning I needed to pinch myself as, yet again, the sun rose and it promised wonderful unbroken sunshine all day. After the disappointingly unsettled summer we have had, I could not believe how fortunate we had been with the weather. Just as well really, because I don’t do camping – had I mentioned that before? We headed off turning right at the junction onto the Trent & Mersey Canal. We continued through the 5 locks down into Alrewas, where we stopped to stock up the cold box with produce from the famed Coates Butchers there. Now we were confident we had sufficient good quality pork pie to last at least the next 24 hours, we felt secure to venture down through the next lock onto the picturesque river section up to Wychnor and on through Branston towards Burton-Upon-Trent, where we had planned to moor for the night to meet some good friends of ours. As we arrived at Tatenhill Lock, there was a gentleman working his boat through the lock single-handed ahead of us. I jumped off Python with my windlass to go and assist. He was quite new to boating, but when I mentioned we were on board a historic boat called Python, it rang a bell with him. It turned out he comes from Chesterfield and owns a business in Staveley. I chatted to him about the urgent appeal we were working on to ensure a large grant for developing Staveley Basin in the hope that he might be generous and buy a £5 brick. He suggested he would be interested in buying more than one brick but as the lock was now ready and it was time for him to set off, perhaps we could meet up with him at the pub a short distance ahead and he would sort it out with me. I went about resetting the lock for Python to come through and, as Dave drew Python into the lock, I noticed a hose emitting water over the side. He had set up the auxiliary bilge pump again. For some reason, even though the automatic bilge pump was working, the water level has risen considerably. This meant that either the inlet to the automatic pump had become blocked, or the water was now coming in much faster than one pump could cope with. It certainly focusses the mind when you cannot see where the water is coming in and it appears that two pumps were needed to keep up with the ingress. We needed to pull over somewhere to investigate whether the automatic pump was working properly and whether we could get the water level back down to something more reasonable before deciding what the best course of action was. We carried on a short distance to the pub and tied her up. A chap on a neighbouring boat came over and, realising that Dave had a bit of a crisis, he stayed there with him making suggestions and reassuring comments as Dave screwed himself into a ball to get into the hot oily recesses of the engine room to strip down the auxiliary pump that appeared to have become blocked and monitor whether the water was still rising, or whether we were getting the level down again. In the mean time, I nipped off to speak to the gentleman who has suggested he might buy a brick. When I returned, Dave looked as though he had spent a couple of hours in the engine room of a steamer stoking the boiler and his beige shorts were destined to be consigned to the rag bag! He had managed to ensure both pumps were working fully and with them running the level was not going up but there was, at this point, a real possibility that we may need to forget any plans about tying up for a nice evening with our friends in Burton and press on, possibly chugging right through the night to get Python to the safe haven of the boatyard as quickly as possible. On the plus side, my conversation with the gentleman from Staveley was very productive and he requested that someone from the Trust should make contact with him, so that he could make very sizeable donation and discuss the possibility of an on-going sponsorship package. It truly felt surreal that on one hand we had the potential of a very real crisis on our hands while on the other we wanted to jump for joy at the thought of managing to forge a potentially very valuable friendship for the Trust. I think I heard Dave liken the situation to the orchestra that kept playing while the Titanic was sinking. Python was sinking but Jan kept fundraising! We thought the situation through and realised that we could get Python to the boatyard the next day if we pressed on as long as the light would allow us that evening and providing the pumps kept up with the pace in water ingress. If we set off again at dawn the next day (assuming she was still floating!) then it would prevent the batteries powering the pumps from getting low on charge. Reluctantly I phoned my friend to let her know our planned evening together would have to be cancelled. I explained why and her response was to offer to come with buckets to help bail out! It is at times like these when you know who your true friends are! In fact they drove up to Willington and met us with a gift of a rather lovely bottle of wine as the last bit of daylight faded and we looked for somewhere to tie up for the night. We all sat and drank the wine from plastic tumblers and laughed as realisation dawned that just a few feet away behind a high hedge was a main rail line where both freight and express trains would be rumbling past all night long. We were far too tired to carry on and we planned an early start anyway. We found it incredible that the vibrations from the passing trains were transmitted to the boat even though it was floating. I wonder how anyone can possibly live so close to railways. As I tucked my warm blanket around me to keep out the cold and damp I heard yet another freight train rumble by and wondered how on earth I was surviving. I don’t do camping!
On Thursday, we were up and off before dawn. We started to make our way down the locks to join the Trent. Soon we met up with Ange & Dave Laws, the new members who had been at Alvecote. They kindly offered us assistance with transport once Python reached her destinaton. We are so fortunate to have such wonderful friends. The water was still coming in, but today a single pump once again seemed to be coping with it. In fact Python behaved herself impeccably during the final day of our duty moving her to the Erewash Canal and Paul’s boatyard. The river felt wide and open after the canal and, with the sun shining down from a cloudless sky onto the water and the roof of Python, it felt like the whole world was blue. We were also starting to feel a little blue; today we would leave Python. Thinking back to our early morning start, moving Python along the canal breaking the mirror like surface of the water in the dawn light with wisps of mist rising from the water was amazing. You see so much wildlife when moving at that time of the day, slowly chugging along this corridor through our green and pleasant land was a pure joy. Periodically I had to snap myself back to the reality that we were on a mission to get a boat that was letting in water to a safe haven and would be taking her on the river that day. No sooner had I faced that fact, I would remind myself of the counter argument – no matter how little sleep I had achieved, how cold we had felt, how much I wanted a shower, how much that old Lister engine kept rattling, it did not make the stunning scenery any less beautiful. After several very long days cruising, I realised that we were doing no different to the original operators of this very same vessel. They too would have been on a mission to reach their destination as soon as possible, their livelihood depended on it. They would have been tied up next to railways, cramped in a boatman’s cabin with a bar of coal tar soap to keep them clean. They would have only had a small stove to heat water and cook on. They would have kept going all year around whatever the weather – they were not on holiday, they were not camping, this was the only life they knew. That put things into perspective. Our holiday had truly been a wonderful adventure. We had been cold, wet, tired and lacking in comforts. We had been camping and, in case you did not realise it, I don’t do camping! We had witnessed the most amazing sunrises and sunsets in some truly beautiful settings. We had seen farmers busily getting the harvest in along the route. We had seen the final flush of bloom on the wild flowers along the way and trees laden with conkers ripening. We had been privileged to spend time with some wonderful people. People who had taught us new things, people who had made us laugh and smile, people who had been generous to the cause, people who had helped us. Some of those people were old friends, some have become new friends. We had eaten some wonderful food and sampled some lovely ale and we were accompanied for our entire adventure by a venerable old lady. A lady who both commands respect and also demands attention. A strong willed old lady who, while far from being belligerent, will ensure any steerer who does not concentrate on her demands will get made to feel just a little foolish when she turns her deaf ear to their input to her controls. An old lady who, if you are prepared to spend a little time getting to know her, will allow you to glimpse a little of her history. An old lady who knows how to make people smile. An old lady who is beguiling! Yes she has charmed me. That old lady is called Python, Python is a charmer – a snake charmer! We are missing her now. Would we do it again? Yes, definitely! Maybe not for two weeks – I don’t do camping!
While I have been writing this I have become aware that I have continuously had to correct what tense I am writing in. My intention was to ask Dave to proof read it for me to pick up on anywhere I have gone wrong and I just said to him “I am having problems with tense” his reply? “Well that is the trouble with camping” 🙂