Ben Newsam Home

The Cruise of the Dondevoy

A historical canal diary, written at the time in 1972 by

This diary has been visited

Web Analytics Made Easy -
times. View the Dondevoy stats

Preface Introduction June 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 July 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23   30 August 5   8 September 5   8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26

The illustrations are from various sources, and are credited where they appear in the diary.


This diary was written during an extended cruise on the canals in 1972, in an old rowing boat converted so I could live on it. The trip started in Cambridge, went down the River Great Ouse to where it becomes tidal, then across the Middle Level Navigable Drains to Peterborough and up the River Nene and onto the canal system. I spent about a month in Northampton, several weeks in Coventry, and a few days in Stratford-upon-Avon. The diary covers my cruises between those places.

Included in the diary is an account of going along the Old Bedford River and through the now unnavigable Welches Dam and Horseway Locks, on 9th June. Of particular note are some of the people I met along the way: Dr David Owen the canal author on his boat Rose of Sharon on 20th July, Joe & Rose Skinner on their butty boat Friendship on 5th September, 8th September, and 9th September, Bob Bush the canal painter on 9th September, and Nick & Corinna Grey on 23rd September.

I wrote in longhand, more or less every day, in a hard backed exercise book. In a few instances, I wrote several days at once, but mostly I was able to keep it up to date. In transcribing it to the computer, I have tried to keep as much as possible to the original text, only making corrections where the original was hard to understand, and putting right a few spelling errors. I have omitted a few paragraphs here and there, mostly flippant comments that added nothing to the story, or lengthy passages about non-canal stuff that I now consider boring. The omissions have been marked as such in pencil in the original longhand manuscript. Because it was intended to be primarily a canal diary, the text mostly covers only those times that I was actually moving from place to place; I stopped three times to get employment of various kinds, and although I have mentioned them in the text, I stopped writing the diary when I was doing nothing but working every day. I reasoned at the time that the interest of the story would be in the canal cruising rather than my mundane work life. The longest gap is one of nearly a month during my time in Coventry.

Illustrations are attributed where possible, and where permission to take copies has not yet been granted, are "hot links" direct to the original source. It is thus possible that such links do not work from time to time. Some photographs (of Blisworth Tunnel, for instance) that were taken at the time belong to me and no attribution is given. All illustrations may be seen in their original resolution by clicking on the picture, which will open the picture in a new tab or window.

Apart from illustrations belonging to and attributed to other people, the entire diary and related material is copyright ©1972 and later dates Ben Newsam. You are free to publish links to any part of the diary, but any other use of the written or picture material therein requires my prior permission.


I had decided to resign from the bank where I worked, because I really could not see myself working there for the next forty years. I needed to do something to break out of the depression from which I had been suffering, so I decided that a trip on the canals would be a good idea. It would involve some physical activity, and would be in the open air. The plan would be to cruise around, and stop in various places to obtain work. The trip would thus be self-financing to a certain extent.

Eventually, I saw an advertisement for what might be a suitable boat, a fourteen foot rowing boat was for sale at a boatyard in Thorpe in Norwich. When I got there, and had been rowed across the river to the boatyard, I found that the clinker-built boat was leaning against a tree and was completely dried out. It would almost certainly not float as there were several holes in the hull, and the planks were badly worn where they joined the transom, so there were some gaps round the stern.

I tested the timber with my pocket knife. The knife pushed right through the rotten timber and out the other side! However, the price was only ten pounds and so not much would be lost if it proved impossible to renovate. I decided to buy it, transported it home on a trailer, and placed it upside down on blocks in the garden.

Over the next few months, I worked hard on repairs. I filled the larger holes with patches held on with copper nails, and used fibreglass filler for the smaller ones. I painted both inside and outside of the hull with many, many coats of tar varnish in an effort to seal the wood. The first five coats or so simply soaked into the wood and vanished, but eventually it began to build up on the surface. We had a pond in the garden large enough for a boat, so it was the ideal place for a test. On putting the boat in the water for the first time, it sank in about a minute. I was confident that my repairs had been sufficient, however, so I was not too worried. I left it in a sunken state for a few days to soak up some water, and after that I pumped out the water and the boat floated perfectly, hardly shipping any water at all.

I constructed a lockable compartment in the bow, painted the hull inside and out above the waterline, and made a tent out of a tarpaulin to fit the whole boat. The tent was fixed to the boat by a hemp rope and a series of hooks on the boat and eyes in the tent. It was held up by a pole that I constructed with a brass pin at each end. One pin poked out of a hole in the tent, and the other sat in a small hole in the thwart. Two guy lines went from the top pin of the pole to the corners of the boat at the stern, and so the tent flaps could be draped over the guy lines and tied together with tapes. The idea was that during cruising, the pole would be lowered, but that the tent would normally not be removed from the main part of the boat. On mooring, the pole and attached guy lines could be very simply put in place, creating an instant tent. This arrangement worked very well in practice, and I had hardly any problems with it. With the tent down, the rear thwart was open and was the position used for cruising, and the main thwart was similarly exposed and could be used for carrying passengers.

Once I had been going for a week or two, I learned a few tricks to make my life easier. I had two loops of rope, both attached fore and aft, with a wooden tent peg attached at different positions along the length of each. These were used as mooring ropes when the ground was soft enough to bang the tent pegs in with a mallet. Thus, both bow and stern were attached to two points on the ground, an arrangement that worked very well. When going through locks, it was not a good idea to moor up properly every time I jumped on or off the boat, so I had another rope attached to the bow, and the other end of the rope was tied firmly to one end of a broom handle. When approaching a mooring, I could hold the broom handle in my hand like a fishing rod, and use it to coil the rope a couple or three times round a suitable bollard. There was no need to tie on any better than that, because in order to come loose the broom handle would have to be dragged completely round the bollard.

Preparation for the cruise involved thinking about equipment. I used an old Primus stove for cooking, and to fulfil the legal requirements for a canal boat, bought a simple blowable hooter, and a large flashlight to use as a headlight in tunnels. I put two nine-inch planks across the thwarts to form a simple bed. An old padded quilt served as a simple mattress, on which I slept in a sleeping bag. After the first night I spent on the boat, I was covered in bruises, but I soon got used to it and was able to sleep there very well.

I planned to put the boat in the water in Cambridge, partly because my sister lived there, and also because I wanted to navigate the Middle Levels across the fens to Peterborough. After that, I planned to "follow my nose" and not to set a fixed route too far in advance.

The outboard motor was an old Evinrude two cylinder motor that had been lying about unused for a few years. It was possibly rather too powerful for such a small boat, but it had the advantage of being available, and could also be locked with a padlock to the boat. The main danger with such a motor was that it would have to be run at a low throttle to keep down to the four miles per hour speed limit on most inland waterways, and so might be subject to oiling up. I made a couple of short test cruises on the Norfolk Broads, to make sure the outboard motor was likely to be reliable, obtained the necessary licences from various waterways authorities, and named the boat Dondevoy, being the Spanish for "Where am I going?"

June 2nd 1972, Friday - Into the Water

[The original diary starts here. B.E.N.]

After towing the boat from Ormesby to Cambridge, my father and I looked for a slipway to put it in the water; we eventually found one at Chesterton opposite the Green Dragon pub. Then came the big moment - tug and heave Dondevoy off the trailer and into the river - when it happened it was an anti-climax, for the boat just calmly sat there looking quite at home in its new environment - not surprising, really.

I still had no licence, so I telephoned the Great Ouse River Authority, who told me I could buy one at Bottisham Lock. The landlord of the Green Dragon assures me that there is no such place, but I forgive him his ignorance because of the excellence of his Greene King beer!

The motor worked well on its trial run, but on the way back from a trip down river with Pat, Rachael, and Sarah , it kept cutting out, and finally stopped. Surely it could not have used a whole tankful of fuel in such a short space of time? However, the tank was empty, and we had great difficulty in crossing the river, what with the current, the wind, and dozens of rowing "eights" racing downstream practising for the May "Bumps". (How they can have such an event in June, I do not know.) Pat nobly towed us back to Jesus Green Lock, where I moored for the night.

June 3rd 1972, Saturday - Last Minute Shopping

Today was spent in searching Cambridge for additional kit for the boat. I slowly and stiffly crawled out of my sleeping bag at midday, and set off; I now think I have everything, except milk and sugar, but they are not important.

Fantastic! Today I found a shop which sells those small camping tin-openers - I thought nobody made them any more, but apparently they are made by Morfed (S. Wales) Ltd., Caerphilly. They are, despite their small size, most efficient.

The tin opener on the right is the type I used. Very compact and worked amazingly well. Picture from

I shall not attempt to start the motor until tomorrow at the earliest, for if there happens to be anything wrong, I will be able to do nothing until a garage opens on Monday.

I heard a wonderful "Pinteresque" expression in the Green Dragon yesterday; one woman was saying to another "If I had my way, I'd rip out the sage and onion, and stuff it with a can of peas". I missed the rest of the conversation, but I kept on hearing isolated sentences, which had my father and me in stitches.

Blast! Rain is forecast for tomorrow; I could do with fine weather while I am getting organised on board - I still have not sewn enough tapes on the flaps of my tent; perhaps I will get around to it tomorrow.

Great company at Number 15 tonight - some relations of Pat's, and three blokes someone had met on the river. At midnight several of us went to the children's playground across the river and spent a damp but hilarious half-hour on the swings.

June 4th 1972, Sunday - On Your Marks..

Another late sleep-in today; I did not get up until half past twelve - this really must not go on, as I missed the best half of the day. The rain started soon after I came to, and most of the day was spent in lying down. I really ought to get away tomorrow, but must wait for Sarah to come back, as she might have brought something from home that I have forgotten.

I have grave doubts about my lock-handle, which Mr Alison so kindly made for me. It certainly would not fit the lock here, although is apparently alright for the locks on the River Nene. I suppose that I could buy one somewhere if it turns out to be too awkward to use.

The motor worked, and I breathed a huge sigh of relief; it seems to be a matter of adjusting the mixture very precisely. I must remember that. Somebody told me that the maximum speed of a boat is 1.5 times the square root of the waterline in feet, which works out on Dondevoy to be about 4 miles per hour; I am sure she goes faster than that.[1][2]

Another wonderful expression - Tillie this time. She said "We weren't allowed to wear bunches because they got in the Communion cup".

[1] [In fact the waterline of a boat is the total waterline, not just the length of the boat. In Dondevoy's case this would be about 30 ft, being twice her length of 14 ft plus a transom of about 2 ft, giving a theoretical top speed of about 8 mph, a much more believable figure. B.E.N.]
[2] [2021 update: The actual formula is 1.34 times the waterline in feet, giving a result in knots. The square root of 30 is 5.48, times 1.34 is 7.34 knots, which is about 8.4 mph. B.E.N.]

June 5th 1972, Monday - Get Set...

Sarah arrived back today, bearing a letter from the Welland and Nene Authority saying that the keys for the locks on the Nene will be waiting for me at Stanground Sluice. I must remember to 'phone the Middle Level locks well in advance of going through.

Tillie's sister Liz came to Number 15, and her brother was there as well. Later in the evening, a party of us went to the cinema.

June 6th 1972, Tuesday - Go!

Off at last! After saying goodbye to all in Cambridge, and making the boat ready, I set off, making good progress in bright sunshine and getting waves or cheery hoots from passing craft.

I passed through Baitsbite and Bottisham locks. At Baitsbite I was charged 40 pence to go through, so I did not tip the lock keeper, as he seemed to be making quite a living as it was. He was very quick at his task, however, and in a few minutes I was through the drop of about 4 feet.

Bottisham was altogether different, and as far as I know, quite unusual; it has a guillotine gate at the top, and pointed doors at the bottom. The top gate was electric, and the bottom gate driven by a petrol motor.

I decided to miss going up the "lodes" which turn off to the right soon after the lock. This was just as well, because I ran out of fuel about 2 miles short of Ely - I had used a whole gallon from Cambridge to Ely; it will be expensive if it continues like this!

June 7th 1972, Wednesday - Ely to Littleport

After drifting down river last night until dark, I moored near a road bridge just short of Ely, and spent a comfortable night, punctuated by trains going over the nearby railway bridge, and detonating fog signals, which I learnt were put there because an express train came off the track yesterday.

In the morning, I discovered that a cow had chewed one of my mooring ropes, but luckily not badly, though it now has a green and crinkled look; I then drifted gently into Ely and moored just outside "The Cutter".

The Cutter pub on the River Ouse in Ely. Picture from

While having lunch, I got several surprised stares from passers-by, who looked in amazement while I prepared my mix-up of tomatoes, instant mashed potatoes, one egg, and some cheese; they did not realise how difficult it is to cook more than one thing at a time with only one pan and one burner. It tastes the same mixed up anyway.

In the pub afterwards, I played a good game of darts against two young men of about my age, who were in a hired cruiser going the other way. After exchanging information about the river ahead, we parted, they to their boat, and I to the town. I believe it should be called a city, because of the cathedral, which I visited and admired, although it has only about ten thousand inhabitants. Coming from the river, one can appreciate why the area is called the Isle of Ely; in days gone by it must have been surrounded by water.

When I refilled my petrol can, the attendant at the waterside pump gave me another plastic container for water, which was most generous of him; what I really need now is another petrol can, for I do not want to run out of fuel on the Middle Level, in the middle of the Fens, in the middle of nowhere!

I eventually set off at about half past four, determined to keep going on one tankful and moor wherever it cut out. After a bit of spluttering, the motor soon settled down, and I had a pleasant cruise with the wind behind me, and the sun on my left.

The river is getting very wide now, I should say at least one hundred and twenty feet across, and in places it is very straight, with a view of up to two miles ahead, which makes for good practice in steering in a straight line. The motor cut out just North of Littleport, and I moored on a nettle-filled bank where there was a gap in the weed growth in the water. On the opposite bank there was a field of very fine horses which galloped up and down with their manes flying; the front runner all the time was a small foal. A magnificent sight, with the sun setting behind them.

After a meal, I walked back to the Black Horse at Littleport, where there was good company, plenty of conversation, and dubious jokes. One fellow, who was wearing a sweat shirt with a nude printed on it, which he said he bought in Great Yarmouth, offered me a five gallon plastic drum for petrol, and told me where he lived, which was just down river.

The landlord amused us all with some good stories, and then it was time to leave. It was so dark, that I found difficulty in locating the boat, but eventually I found it, and got off to sleep.

June 8th 1972, Thursday - Littleport to Denver Sluice

I set off at about midday, stopping shortly afterwards to get some petrol, and to look for Mr Murfitt's house (the man who had offered me the petrol drum), but I failed to find it, and continued towards Denver Sluice at a fair speed, as I had been told that the Old Bedford Lock would be open soon after 4 pm. It is a very pleasant stretch of river, winding gently, and full of wild life, swans, ducks, swallows, great crested grebes, skylarks, and the occasional yellowhammer. The weather was cold and windy, but the sun came out later and warmed me up a bit.

I reached Denver Sluice at about 3 pm, where the lock keeper informed me that the tide would not be in until eight or nine o'clock, by which time the Old Bedford would be closed, but that he would wake me up at seven o'clock in the morning; I hope I shall be able to face the world, and the tidal river, that early.

Denver Sluice is very impressive, with its massive guillotine sluice gates, and its two-way lock with the balance beams overlapping each other. The gates are rather leaky, and the water swirls ominously far below; I do not enjoy the prospect of navigating such water at any time, let alone before breakfast.

Plan of the "Denver Complex" From Eddy Edwards' "The Ouse Washes Website"

Aerial view of the "Denver Complex" from the North. From the National Education Network site

The whole area is a mass of waterways; just below the sluice, the New Bedford River stretches away, twenty miles in a straight line. Above the lock is the sluice for the Relief Channel to King's Lynn, the outflow of the Cut-Off Channel that skirts the Fens, and the inlet of the new scheme which takes water by a devious underground route to drought-ridden Essex. Further on, in the direction I am going, is the Old Bedford Sluice, and the now disused entrance to the Well Creek route through the Middle Level.

From GreenVenturesTV's YouTube channel.

June 9th 1972, Friday - Denver Sluice to Horseways

I was woken up this morning by a cry of "Are you there then boy?", in a broad Norfolk dialect. It was half past seven, and the time had come to "lock through". As the tide was still going down, and was not quite level, there was a rise of about a foot to be negotiated, but this was no trouble. Then I had to wait for over half an hour at the Old Bedford Sluice for the tide to level off, which I spent in chatting to Mr Everett the lock keeper, who explained that I should have to lock through with "a rush of water" so he could have enough pressure to shut his gates again. When he finally began to open the doors, I could see that there was a drop of about six inches, and the water certainly was a "rush", but when both doors were fully open, the boat drifted calmly through as if she did it all the time. The gates closed with two enormous crashes, and I was on my way.

The Old Bedford River was the first of the great schemes for draining the fens, and is over two hundred years old. It goes straight to the horizon as far as the eye can see, and cruising is nothing if not monotonous, but compensated by the plant life, which is too varied to give a list, but which is typical of Fenland.

Arriving at Welney, about halfway along, I had my first meal of the day, which, as it was midday, I shall call lunch.

Then, a visit to the Three Tuns, where the landlord is very friendly, and his bottled Guinness first class; I can thoroughly recommend a stop here for anyone in a boat. The moorings are poor, but the welcome more than makes up for that. He made me sign a Visitor's Book, which he keeps especially for visitors with boats. The book's first names are the Chairman of the Inland Waterways Association, and two of the committee, a very fine testimonial!

After buying some fuel and provisions from two quaint little shops, I was under way again, and got within half a mile of Welches Dam, when I was stopped by a floating footbridge crossing from the village to some bird hides on the opposite bank, maintained by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and overlooking the Washes, the area between the New and Old Bedford rivers. Mr Thorby let me through, but before doing so, he took me across the river and up the bank to look at the bird sanctuary, which one could hear was full of birds of all sorts. The view was magnificent, Ely Cathedral was plainly visible to the East, and in the other direction, we could see as far as March and Sutton.

Welches Dam Lock

Welches Dam Lock seen from the West in 2013. Photo from ©Copyright Richard Humphrey and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Welches Dam Lock

Welches Dam Lock seen from the East in 2007. Note the piling that makes this lock currently unnavigable, and the overgrown state of Vermuyden's Drain beyond. Photo from ©Copyright Colin Turner and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Welches Dam Sluice ought to be called Welches Damned Sluice; it took me over an hour to get through. There are no balance beams on the gates, which have to be hauled back with chains, and worst of all there is a wide bridge across the middle, which necessitated dropping the mooring line, and eventually I had to get help to retrieve the boat.

Horseways Lock

Horseways Lock seen from the West in 2010. The lock gates are in a bad state and the channel beyond is choked with reeds and is unnavigable. Photo from ©Copyright Hugh Venables and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Horseways Lock came next, after a pleasant cruise along a narrow drain with high banks on either side. I had now abandoned any hope of getting to Ramsey before nightfall, which was just as well, as I could not fathom out how to work the lock; my lock handle fitted the shaft, but I could not turn it. After a while I abandoned the attempt, and moored for the night. Tomorrow I shall do as the navigation notes say, and go to the "nearest cottage" for the proper handle. The nearest cottage is about a mile away.

A good description of a navigation of Horseways Lock in 2001 (with pictures) is available at

June 10th 1972, Saturday - Horseways to Whittlesey

I now fear I shall not get to Stanground Sluice today, as I might have done had I been able to work the lock. Feeling beaten, I walked back along to the cottage, where the farmer "didn't know nothing about no lock handle", but would lend me a spanner. I showed him my lock handle, and he agreed to come and have a look. We drove off in his Land Rover, to the strains of Mantovani's Orchestra playing "Stranger on the Shore" coming out of his pig sties; this, he explained, was to "keep 'em quiet and stop 'em biting each other's tails off". We got to the lock, his son arriving soon after in his own car, and the combined efforts of both of them, accompanied by much grunting and banging, succeeded in opening one of the paddles, and breaking the hand piece off my lock handle. When the lock was full, and the boat inside, they closed the paddle, and said "You're in the pen now, and if we can't get you out you're stuck. Ha, ha!" They were just contemplating the effort required to get me out, when I suddenly realised that the water level was dropping fast, and they confirmed that the bottom gates were leaking badly, so I was soon out again.[1] After thanking them and seeing them off, a car drove up, and three people got out to take photographs of the lock. It was a mother and her two sons, presumably on a day out from a Public School. They were very interested in canals, and were horrified at my story of the delay at Denver, as it would "wreck their time schedule on a holiday". I could not chat for any longer, as they had to leave. "We're on a very tight time schedule, you see", they called out, and drove off. Thank goodness that I have got all the time I need.

A visit to Ramsey was now out of the question, so I decided to try and make Whittlesey at Ashline Lock, on the fuel I had. Immediately after Horseways Lock, there is a very pretty section, but very narrow; there was hardly enough room for my boat between the weeds, let alone anyone coming the other way. Nobody did, however, and the day was spent without incident. I followed the recommended route, going from the Forty Foot Drain into the Old River Nene, which was very windy, with one very tight hairpin bend near the beginning. The route through the village of Benwell was very pretty, and from then on it was a matter of following the signposts. I arrived at Ashline Lock at half past seven, with less than half a tankful of petrol left.

Whittlesey Church. Picture from the "Cambridgeshire Churches" website at

At the Bricklayers Arms in the evening, I enquired about the bells in Whittlesey church, and was told that they were "The finest in the country". I am sure that it was hereabouts that Dorothy L. Sayer set her book The Nine Tailors, for everything fits, from the description of the church to the layout of the land.

[1]A good description of a navigation of Horseways Lock in 2001 (with pictures) is available at

June 11th 1972, Sunday - Whittlesey to Peterborough

A hire cruiser came up to the lock this morning, so I decided to lock through with her; she was called Lazy Days. The occupants very kindly gave me a tow up to the very sharp bend in the village, where I moored for lunch.

At Stanground Sluice, the keys for the River Nene were indeed waiting for me, and soon after I was cruising along the Nene past large seagoing cruisers and barges. Soon after came Peterborough, and although I was running out of petrol, I decided to press on, as the river was full of rowing boats, and I did not want to moor there for fear of vandals. After a few bridges, I came to the first lock, where I had a foretaste of what was to come on the Nene; the lower guillotine gate had to be wound right down, and all the way back up again afterwards, and the paddles were rather stiff. I got through, after using a bit of elbow grease, and continued, looking for a mooring site so that I could walk back to the city the next day to draw some money from the bank and refill my diminishing larder. Suddenly, on my left, I found the Peterborough Sailing Club, and obtained permission to stay the night. I was then invited into the clubhouse, where I was filled up with Guinness, and engaged in conversation until ten o'clock. It is a very friendly club, and I was recommended to call in at the Northampton Boat Club At the other end of the Nene navigation, where I was assured I would be welcome.

The secretary of the club arranged for the clubhouse door to be left unlocked so that I could use the lavatory, and after wishing all my new friends goodnight, I retired to my boat.

June 12th 1972, Monday - Peterborough to Elton

A long walk back to Peterborough was necessary today to draw some money from the bank, and to reprovision myself. When I got up, which was fairly late, I found that the clubhouse had been locked after all. Perhaps someone thought I had left already. I had less money than I thought, and shall have to be careful how I spend it. Maybe if I can get a tow from someone, I would save petrol.

The Nene valley is very beautiful, exactly typical of the "English" countryside; there are green fields all around, with sheep and cows dotted about, and now and then, when the river touches the edge of its flood plain, there are magnificent banks of trees hanging right down to the water. I saw several herons, and a couple of hawk-like birds hovering above the meadows. The architecture is changing as well as the scenery; most of the houses I see now are built of stone, instead of the East Anglian red brick. So too is the local accent; after Peterborough, I heard no more Norfolk dialect, and now the accent is more and more Midlands with every person I meet.

I negotiated five locks during the day, all without help, and all under the gaze of day trippers, who seemed delighted at the sight of me straining to lower and raise the bottom gate of each lock; their sneering soon turned to envy when they realised that I was going to saunter off in a boat, while they had to get back to town in their cars. Most of them seemed surprised that it was possible to get through from Cambridge to the Nene at all. I suppose this is not unusual, as not many boats use the route, and the Angling Associations are trying to get it closed off completely. Apparently the anglers on the Middle Level are a very uncouth lot, and tend to throw ground-bait at passing navigators. There is going to be a big rally of boats ending on June 25th, to show how many people want the waterways kept open.

Back on the Nene, however, I moored just above the lock at Elton, by a grassy bank, one of the best moorings I have had so far.

Moorings on the River Nene above the lock at Elton. Picture from the blog "Retirement with No Problem" at

June 13th 1972, Tuesday - Elton to Titchmarsh

Elton is a very pretty village, built on the side of the valley, with nearly all the houses being built of stone, and several having old fire insurance plates on their walls. I imagine that property prices here would be sky-high.

The man who served me at the garage gave me a metal can for petrol to replace the plastic one the landlord of The Three Tuns gave me. I duly thanked him, returned to the boat, and got under way.

In all I negotiated nine locks today, mooring just above Titchmarsh Lock, where there is a cruising club based in an old mill, which still has all the machinery intact. I walked in right in the middle of a committee meeting, but they let me stay, so I had a sit down in a comfortable chair. I even joined in when they were discussing the future of the Middle Level, about which they knew very little.

The whole day's cruising has been through green fields, with innumerable church spires pointing upwards from behind the trees, and quiet villages hiding round corners. The Nene here is often more of a canal than a river, as the channel to the locks skirts the edge of the valley several feet above the bottom, giving a pleasant view to the other side.

I had been told at Peterborough Yacht Club that only Welford Lock had water going over the top of the gates, but I have only seen two where it didn't, and this only because the water level was down by about nine inches. However, Welford Lock was the worst, as the weir was being repaired, and all the water was pouring over the lock. This is quite a frightening experience, to moor a small boat like mine just below a six-foot waterfall.

Water pouring over a lock gate on the River Nene Picture from the blog "Retirement with No Problem" at

June 14th 1972, Wednesday - Titchmarsh to Higham Ferrers

Nine locks again today[1], making a total of twenty four out of the thirty seven to Northampton; I cruised at a very slow speed to conserve fuel, as I was now down to my last gallon. I eventually ran out one lock above Higham Ferrers; a very peculiar lock it was too, as the guillotine gate was curved, pivoting about the centre of the curve, and raised and lowered slowly and laboriously by a complicated system of drums and pulleys instead of the usual giant-sized bicycle chain attached to a counterweight. People had scratched rude comments about it all over the pantwork.

Curved radial guillotine gate on a lock on the River Nene. Photo from ©Copyright Mike Todd and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

When I moored I had time to think out a plan of action, as I now had no fuel, and no money. I must now think of ways and means to get to Northampton.

[1] In fact, there are only 8 locks between Titchmarsh and the next lock above Higham Ferrers, I must have miscounted!

June 15th 1972, Thursday - Higham Ferrers to Wellingborough

I decided to tow the boat when I could, and hitch tows whenever possible, although there do not seem to be many boats passing in either direction. It was very hard work towing, as the rope kept snagging on the weeds and pulling the boat onto the mud, and as there is no towpath, I had to stumble through nettles and thistles, and tributary dykes and streams. In the end, I hit on the idea of fixing the rope about a yard from the bow, and fitting a makeshift rudder on the stern. This worked well, and I got through two locks by evening. Unfortunately, at the second one, there is a large block of wood slung across in front of the guillotine gate[1], and as I was filling the lock, I noticed that the tent pole on the boat was jammed underneath it. I rushed to try and free it, but could not do so. While I was pulling, the spike on top of the pole suddenly penetrated the wood, trapping my thumb in a very efficient thumbscrew. There was nothing I could do, except shout for help, and try not to faint from the pain. After a while, I could not say how long, as the lock was still filling, the boat jerked sideways, and my thumb was free. I did not dare look at it at first, in case it was not there, but thankfully it was, but a very odd shape. Quickly, I let the water out of the lock and closed the paddle on the upper gate, and lay down on the grass to think. I decided to get the boat through the lock first, and then go and look for a doctor. This I did.

After a walk of about a mile into the town of Wellingborough, the thumb was almost its normal shape again, although covered in blisters, and very painful. I still thought it was best to see a doctor, in case I was about to suffer from shock or something. There seemed to be no doctors at home, however, so I went bell ringing instead, and spent a pleasant evening, even though I was not invited to the pub afterwards.

[1] The bottom guillotine gate of this lock has since been replaced by pointy gates.

June 16th 1972, Friday - Onwards from Wellingborough

The thumb was a lot better in the morning, although it made towing the boat difficult. To add to my problems, I ran out of fresh water, and had to walk uphill across five fields to the nearest house to get some.

Then, after a meal, I slogged on, reaching the next lock by about nine o'clock. Progress along these lines is slow, as there are ten more locks to Northampton. I must rely on the prospect of a tow for most of the way at least, and must send a letter to the Nene River Authority, asking them to extend the period of my stay on the river, and not to dock the whole of the deposit on the keys.

Food supplies are beginning to run short now, and I am rationing myself to one third of a tin of beans for each meal, and one egg every other day. But enough of that, this is not Scott's Last Expedition.

There seemed to be little sign of anglers today, despite the fact that the fishing season opens today; I would have thought that the whole lot would be out in force, making a "Glorious 16th" out of it. Perhaps there will be more tomorrow, being Saturday. The only people I saw were two small boys, an old couple, and one "expert" who was staggering along the bank under a load of equipment; he even had the regulation hat with the feather in it. He paused to grin at me as I was squelching through a stinking bog at a cattle drinking place. I hope he catches nothing all season, God rot him.

June 17th 1972, Saturday - Slow Progress

The weather was all wrong for towing from the bank this morning, as there was a stiff breeze in the wrong direction. I decided to wait until some kind boat comes. Up to the time of writing there have been three boats through the lock, but all in the wrong direction. Maybe tomorrow the hired boats from Oundle Marina will be coming through.

By mid afternoon, nobody came up the lock, so I decided to push on, or rather pull. In this way, I got to the next lock, with great difficulty, where a man gave me half a gallon of petrol, and some food. I remonstrated, but he insisted "When you're a millionaire, you can buy me a yacht!" It turned out he was the editor of the local paper, if that is of any significance.

[The newspaper editor who gave me petrol came over to my boat in the morning with a small cooked breakfast, which was very welcome indeed. It was my impression that he lived at the old mill near the lock. B.E.N.]

June 18th 1972, Sunday - A Brief Spurt

I set off towing, determined to save the petrol I had been given, but soon I had to start the motor. I caught up with a pair of boats who had passed through earlier, and someone told me that the generous editor had said that there was a possibility of jobs at an "Aquadrome" two locks further on. Just at that moment, the motor broke down, and it was back to leg power again, and I made the next lock well before sunset, I had made three locks altogether today. I hope there is a job at the next lock.

The motor is repairable I hope, for the engine goes, but the propeller does not go round. I think maybe it caught a stone or other underwater obstruction, and broke a shearing pin, if there is such a thing.

June 19th 1972, Monday - Billing

Quite an uneventful day - steady towing all the time brought me through two locks, and as far as Billing Aquadrome, which is a huge converted gravel pit full of cruisers, and with funfair, bars and amusement arcades attached. Apart from all the latter, it seems a good place to base a boat, as there are all facilities, and it is not too far from the Grand Union Canal. Apart from the Northampton Arm, with its seventeen locks, there are only four locks on the Nene, and then a journey of a few miles would bring you to Stoke Bruerne, the home of the Waterways Museum, or in the other direction Braunston, which is the focal point of the waterways from London, Oxford, Birmingham, Coventry and Leicester, not counting the River Nene to Peterborough.

June 20th 1972, Tuesday

I was woken up by the sound of two small boys saying "Oh look, a tent!" and then one of them grabbed the line which I had draped round the pole, and started to pull at it, tearing off one of the eyelets holding down the corners in the process. After a few seconds, I put my mouth to the door, and very loudly, but with icy politeness, asked them to go away. They got the shock of their lives, and ran, but I hate to think what they would have done if I had not been there.

In the afternoon, I went to the Aquadrome to enquire about jobs, but was told that students down from college had just taken them all. I then hitched into Northampton, to go to the Labour Exchange.

[I have omitted a boring bit about signing on at the Labour Exchange, and being given a letter of introduction to an archaeological digging "job". B.E.N.]

On my long walk back to Billing, I found quite a lot of mushrooms growing beside the road, which I was very glad of, as they filled out the remainder of my instant mashed potato, and left some for my breakfast tomorrow.

June 21st 1972, Wednesday

[I have omitted a lengthy description of the Labour Exchange and Department of Social Security in Northampton, the result of which was sixty-five pence, which was enough to buy food for a few days. B.E.N.]

Laden down with two carrier bags of food, I walked out to the archaeological site with my letter of introduction. It turned out to be further than I thought, at least four miles, and my burden got heavier all the time. When I eventually got there, the man in charge was out, but if I was to turn up tomorrow morning...

Despite the difficulties, the possibility of a job is now a probability, and having driven me back to Billing in a Land Rover, my future workmates will also pick me up tomorrow morning. So the future looks bright at last.

June 22nd 1972, Thursday

I got the job this morning, and found, as I expected, that a "dig" really means digging, and grovelling on hands and knees with a little trowel; most people know that already. The pay is a derisory one pound fifty per day, but has the advantage of being called a "subsistence allowance", so there is no stamp to pay, and the tax is left up to you. The company is great, being mostly students and teachers on vacation, and the work is hard but rewarding, and also has its funny moments.

I shall have to walk to the site tomorrow, as Mr Williams, who is in charge, objects to the Land Rover being taken out of its way on its journey to or from Northampton. As soon as my motor is fixed I shall moor in Northampton, and thus be able to get transport.

The boatyard across the road told me that it will be a very cheap job to replace a shear pin in the propeller, if indeed that is what is wrong.

June 23rd 1972, Friday -

I had allowed fifty minute for the walk to the site, but what with the holes in my shoes and the gravelly roads, I did not arrive until half past nine. This did not really matter, as the Land Rover from the flat for the diggers did not arrive until after I did. The dirt to be removed from the site is a heavy clay; either it is rock hard, in which case scraping only results in a high polish, or when wet, it sticks to your shoes in two inch thick layers. At coffee break, someone found an old pair of shoes in a ditch, all covered with dried tar from a road mending job, but I now wear them, and find them quite comfortable. Conversation flows freely among the workers, despite the hovering presence of Mr Williams, who is known by a lot of uncomplimentary nicknames. The motor was fixed by the boatyard in a matter of minutes, I could have done it myself if I had had a spanner. They estimated the age of the motor at about twelve years, which surprised me, as it runs so well compared to the people I see passing in little dinghies, cursing and swearing and pulling feverishly at the starting rope for fear of being swept over the lock gates or the weir. Apart from misfiring sometimes on one cylinder, mine seems to be very good; cleaning the plugs should cure the trouble easily enough.

I shall go up river tomorrow, and send back the keys to Oundle with a hard luck story, hoping they will not charge me extra. I did not go tonight, as it was raining slightly, and I think that the number one lock at Northampton would not have been open in the evening. After knocking off work at one o'clock tomorrow, Mick has offered to help me through the locks; that is alright as far as I am concerned, as it will save me the trouble of winding the gates up and down, and will give him the benefit of an afternoon on the river.

I got paid today, for one day's work, and I shall have to be careful to make that one pound fifty last all week, but I fear I shall spend it all on food - mainly on cheese and butter for my lunchtime sandwiches. The light is now fading, and it is difficult to believe that the nights are already beginning to draw in, as Summer has not put in a wholehearted appearance yet.

June 24th 1972, Saturday

After work today, I walked back to the boat with Mick, and after sending him to the boatyard to buy half a gallon of petrol, we set off in the direction of Northampton. We got as far as the next lock, with the motor alternately spluttering and roaring into life, but I could not start it again after locking through. After checking the plugs and trying again, we got a tow back to Billing where I was in time to buy food from the shop about a mile away. Mick then hitched back to Northampton, and I spent a quiet evening sitting in the boat.

June 25th 1972, Sunday - Billing to Northampton

I went up to a boat coming up through the lock to ask for a tow, and the master of the vessel informed me that the boatyard was open, so I took the motor over. They replaced the sparking plugs and cleaned out the carburettor, and charged me one pound seventy-five, I could not afford to pay straight away, so they agreed to wait until pay-day. I immediately set off, and got to the Northampton Lock in the afternoon, after a stop for lunch just below another lock with a curved bottom gate. I spoke to a family who were lunching at the same pub; I had been following them up river, and had to wait at the locks as they went through.

At the Northampton Number One Lock I enquired at the dinghy hire shed about moorings for the night. He offered me a site behind the island in the weir stream, at a rent of sixty pence per week. Again, I could not pay in advance, but he agreed to wait as well.

The lock gate cannot be opened by any key in the set I had been given, so the way to do it was to borrow the key from the lock keeper's cottage up river on the right. Unlike the other locks on the Nene, it had to be left with the guillotine gate closed, and both pointing doors open; I cannot think why.

In the evening I strolled across to the beginning of the Northampton Arm and got as far as the second lock, after helping a boat through the bottom lock. The locks seemed to be in reasonably good condition, but I have heard that the weed growth is heavy, and I could see for myself the narrowness of the channel, and the dangerous-looking bricks just below the surface under one of the bridges.

As I walked gently back again I met a man standing on the water's edge beside a disused hand-operated lifting bridge, and we had a long conversation. We talked about wildlife and general conservation. he told me an amusing tale about a gudgeon he had caught which was attacked by a tench, which in turn was attacked by a pike, and all three fish were pulled out on the same hook! I do not know whether to believe it or not, but it was a good story. It turned out that he kept a watchful eye on that particular pound of the canal, and always opened the top gate of the lock so the next boat through would carry all the floating weed down into the river, so the water would be clear for him to enjoy on his evening ramble. All this time his wife was sitting dutifully in his car, while we watched the light fading over the quiet water, and saw the fish rising to the gnats dancing over the surface.

June 26th 1972, Monday

At the site today there was more heavy spadework, digging a cross section of the deep enclosure ditch of the Iron Age encampment. I am now getting into the swing of the work, and am beginning to get real pleasure out of feeling the spade bite into the clay, and hearing the light ring from the metal as the spoil is tossed away. I made a few "finds", a few pieces of pottery and bone, and what looks like an iron knife. The latter caused some interest, as it was definitely not expected. I think they thought I had "planted" it for a joke. I find that I am getting quite attached to the hole like a close friend, and hope I will be assigned to the same job tomorrow.

I have promised to bring my horn tomorrow, as there is some confusion over the correct time for the coffee breaks; when we down tools is not always when the coffee is ready, and vice versa. After work, I went back to the flat with the others, and after talking for a while, went back to the boat. I had arranged to meet the Land Rover outside a city centre tobacconist's shop in the morning.

My picture has appeared in the paper! Under the headline "They Are Digging Back to the Time of Christ" is a photograph of John and me, digging in the trench, below which was a brief summary of the dig, in which, not surprisingly, they had spelt my name wrong. It is maybe a little unfair that I, a complete beginner, should be featured in this way, but it still makes me feel more important than I really am. And so to bed, as wrote the great diarist.

[A photograph and a scan of the newspaper article should be included here.]

June 27th 1972, Tuesday

Today, someone told me of a dig at Tamworth, which pays more than the one pound fifty per day I am getting here. Tamworth is near a canal, and is on the other side of Coventry, my next goal. It sounds ideal, so I shall probably move on as soon as it is convenient.

I spent the day scrubbing bits of pot and bone (very boring work), after helping to measure the spot where I found the knife blade yesterday, and telling John what needed to be done to the hole. I decided to go bell ringing in the evening, as my handbook on bells told me that there were two churches in Northampton which had Tuesday as a practice night. The first church, St. Peter's, which has a light ring of eight, was deserted, and after enquiring at the churchwarden's house, and being told that there was no regular band at the tower, I set off for All Saints' in the city centre, where the bells are heavier.

All Saints' Church, Northampton.

Picture from Wikipedia user Thorvaldsson and published under this Creative Commons licence.

At eight o'clock the practice started; the band consisted entirely of young girls of school age, none of whom were much good, and a small middle aged man who was teaching them. All they could ring were rounds and simple call changes, so I was in no fear of being shouted at for being slightly off stroke. However, the call changes got thoroughly "imbrangled", but only partly through my fault. During the hour in which we rang, I was taken up the tower to look at the clock, and further up to see the bells. They are badly hung, as the two deepest bells are hung side by side, swinging in the same direction, which makes the tower rock alarmingly. They were all cast together in the eighteenth century, which makes them all combine pleasantly, despite the bad ringing.

June 28th 1972, Wednesday

I woke up in plenty of time today, and set out to my pick-up point in the town. I have found that since taking this job that I can wake up easily in the mornings; I hope it continues this way, for it will be a change from the trouble I have had in the past.

When I returned to the boat I discovered that it had been broken into during the day, and my camera, radio and flashlight stolen; it was so stupid of me to have forgotten to lock the compartment in the bows, and to have omitted to take the serial number of the camera, but it is gone now, and judging by past experience I shall be incredibly lucky to see any of it again, apart from the film, which I can see has been thrown into the river. I hope the police do a good job. Luckily my sleeping bag was not taken, nor my cooking equipment or food, although half a loaf of bread and two apples are missing. I shall now spend a draughty night, as the thieves ripped a seam open in order to get in, rather than simply opening the strings. I shall console myself by eating a meal of tomato-flavoured rice.

June 29th 1972, Thursday

As nothing exciting is happening, and the boat now static, this diary will be discontinued until something interesting happens, preferably to do with canals.

July 14th 1972, Friday

I got paid today for the last time, as I am leaving the dig today. It would be impossible to give a full account of everything I have done, and the people I have met over the last couple of weeks, so I shall merely write down a few details.

The boat was broken into twice more, and failing to find anything of value left, the intruders contented themselves with making a terrible mess, and taking trivial little things and eating my food. They broke all my eggs on the floor of the boat, and slashed open a bag of flour on top of them, giving me an unpleasant job of clearing up.

I took Candy, the Canadian girl, to the bell ringing at All Saint's church twice, and the second time she was allowed to begin to learn how to pull a bell, with a tie on it to make it silent. She did very well, but her mistakes reminded me of the time when I was learning. She was amazed at how difficult it was, compared to how easy it looks before trying.

Then I met Janet, who is very sweet, and cheered me up immensely, just at a time when I needed to be; we did many things together, including a trip up to the fifth lock on the canal. It was raining, but it did not seem to matter.

July 15th 1972, Saturday

In the afternoon I went round the shops in Northampton with Janet and Nick, another digger living in the flat in the town; we bought some strawberries and ate them in the park, and in the evening I was given a good meal, which Janet had cooked.

July 16th 1972, Sunday - Northampton to Stoke Bruerne

Off at last! I had arranged to meet my parents at Stoke Bruerne Museum at half past ten in the morning on Monday, so I was anxious to try to get there the night before, especially in case they were early.

I set off at ten o'clock, and reached the top lock of the Northampton Arm flight of seventeen within five hours, including a stop for lunch, and an unscheduled stop to talk to a couple who were fishing.

At the top, I met an interesting family, and we talked for the rest of the afternoon. He gave me an ounce of tobacco, so I gave them a cup of coffee each, so they gave me some food... time passed quickly. He had a long and sad story to tell, but it was of his private life, and has no place here.

After saying goodbye I cast off, and headed towards Gayton Junction, where the Northampton Arm joins the "Main Line" of the Grand Union Canal. I turned left, and soon came to the mouth of Blisworth Tunnel, the longest still open in this country. I waited for about half an hour, hoping to be able to follow another boat through, as the replacement I had bought for my flashlight, which had been stolen, was not very powerful. However, I plucked up courage, and plunged into the darkness.

Navigating a canal tunnel, for those unused to it, is an awesome experience, and for me, on my own, with only a bicycle headlamp for illumination, it was terrifying. I even admit I felt like screaming once or twice. I passed one boat coming in the opposite direction, and the wash after its passing bounced my boat from one side to the other in an alarming fashion, but by now the end was in sight, and all I had to do was to aim at the little point of light, and to dodge the falling water leaking through the roof.

At Stoke Bruerne, there were plenty of people, it being a Sunday, and the pub was crowded, so there was nothing to do but wait until the morning. I was lucky enough to get a mooring just outside the museum, free of charge.

Stoke Bruerne lock and museum from the air. Picture from

July 17th 1972, Monday

I met my parents just after ten o'clock, and after a pint at the pub, we set out on a drive through the neighbouring countryside. We spent a pleasant day together, seeing the Waterways Museum, and quite a bit of the canal. My parents and Sarah camped beside the canal a little way down, and I walked back to the boat. Some novice had obviously left the paddles on the gates open, for water was pouring over one lock, and the pound above the next lock was nearly dry. However, someone was already working to set things right, so we let it well alone.

July 18th 1972, Tuesday - Stoke Bruerne to Watford Gap

I took Sarah on board, and set off back through the tunnel. meeting my parents at the other end, where we had coffee, and went our separate ways.

My sister Sarah and I in Dondevoy.

Entering Blisworth Tunnel from the South.

Emerging from the North portal of Blisworth Tunnel.

Enjoying a cup of tea before saying goodbye to my family.

I cruised up the canal, having lunch between bridges twenty six and twenty five, where the water goes along an embankment, and there is a triangle of road, railway and canal, and one can see aeroplanes going overhead - a good place to see how diverse our transport system is. It is strange that although everything crosses here, none of them meet, and there is no opportunity to change from one to the other.

In the afternoon came the seven locks up to Norton Junction on the summit of the Main Line, where I turned right and went as far as the Blue Boar service centre on the motorway, where I was able to get petrol. I decided to moor for the night rather than return to Norton Junction, as it was getting quite late. Just here, the contact between the different forms of transport is even greater; the main London to Birmingham railway and the motorway lie as close as is possible on each side of the canal, and the trains and cars rushing past only emphasise the peace of the water. I must try and stop my habit of counting carriages on passing trains, as the effort is making me dizzy, they go so fast. I shall start counting something a little slower, like families of ducklings.

July 19th 1972, Wednesday - Watford Gap to Brinklow

The part of the canal I was on was familiar to me, as I had walked it in the opposite direction two years before. Apart from the tunnel, over which I had walked the previous time, I knew the scenery as far as Braunston. Just before the tunnel I took two young surveyors across the canal, saving them a long walk. We had quite a long chat, and they told me how to go about getting a job with a surveyor, if I should ever want to.

The tunnel was not nearly as bad as Blisworth, as the other end came in sight almost immediately, and there was not so much water leaking through the roof. Soon after came Braunston Locks, where there were a number of boats coming up the opposite way, so different from the last time I saw them, when the flight of six locks was closed off for repairs. At the boatyard below the locks there was a new narrow boat being launched, so I moored opposite and had my lunch. When finally the boat went in the water, it was rather an anticlimax; no ceremony or bottle of champagne, just a few shouted orders, huge grunts from those pushing, and the boat slid ungracefully sideways into the water, making a slow splash.

Just a little further, and the Northern Arm of the Oxford Canal leaves the Grand Union at Braunston Junction; I followed it, making good progress, with two stops to give small herds of young boys short lifts. The canal passes outside Rugby, and it was here that I went over my first road aqueduct.

After passing many derelict arms, I chose one to moor in just opposite a boat hire firm. Alas, at half past ten that night I was told to move as I was on a private mooring; they were as nice as could be expected about it, though.

July 20th 1972, Thursday - Brinklow to Coventry

I cast off in the morning, only to find that the motor would not start, I had left the fuel tap on all night, and the engine was flooded. I moored again, and tried again while tied up, so as not to drift all over the canal. Needless to say, it started first time, but promptly broke the shearing pin on a stone; I did not realise it, but the whole of the canal is lined on the banks with sloping stones, so my motor hit one in a place which on first inspections looks quite deep enough. I was now in a difficult position, as the boatyard nearby did not sell spare parts for outboards, being a diesel only hire firm.

The first boat to come past was a narrow boat, and they offered to give me a tow as far as I liked; I promptly accepted, and we got under way. It was quite tiring being towed, as I had to concentrate on steering all the time, and could not relax for a cigarette or even a drink of water, or the boat would start weaving from side to side.

At Hawkesbury Junction, where the Oxford Canal joins the Coventry Canal, I suddenly realised that I had left my mallet (for driving in pegs for mooring) back at Brinklow where I had spent the night, and just to prove that troubles come in threes, I dropped the locking bar for my motor in the Stop Lock. This latter was not so serious, as I found that I could padlock the motor to the ring on the boat. We tried for some time to fish for the bar with a large magnet, but to no avail, se we retired to the pub for a drink.

The pub (The Greyhound) is still in its original state, and has not yet suffered from being "done up", as no doubt it will when boating on the canals becomes more popular. In fact it is so remote and rural in character that it had a message chalked on the door to the effect that they had run out of draught beer, with "This is no joke" added on the end. Happily for us, the beer had just arrived, so we enjoyed a chat over some good, if rather new, beer.

I learnt that my hosts were Doctor David Owen and his wife on their boat "Rose of Sharon"; Doctor Owen is director of the University Museum at Manchester, and lives near his boat on the Macclesfield Canal. His boat displays the coveted Silver Sword of the Inland Waterways Association, awarded for "Meritorious Cruising", They invited me to drop in and see them any time I might be in that area; I probably shall, as they are very pleasant people.

"Rose of Sharon", seen at Altrincham. Picture from Canalscape Book 5 "Canal Cruising 2008 to 2010", Chapter 1, by Cyril J Wood,

We set off again, turning through a tight hairpin under the bridge at the junction, and going northwards along the Coventry Canal, to find the boatyard at Bedworth. The canal is very pretty and peaceful, marred only by a few derelict cars pushed into the water, and a few pieces of junk which scraped the bottom of my boat. When we reached the boatyard, we found they did not sell shearing pins, so I was towed as far as Nuneaton, past the entrance to the Ashby Canal and the derelict Griff Arm.

At Nuneaton, we said goodbye, and they pressed on, as they were in a hurry to get home. I bought four shearing pins, just to be on the safe side, and after fitting one, I set off back to Coventry, after an uninteresting and difficult cruise from Hawkesbury to the city. The weed was very bad, and the canal littered with floating rubbish, Several times my propeller struck underwater obstructions, and once got itself completely wrapped up in a heavy polythene bag. There were factories backing onto the canal the whole way, and there were not many bridges to relieve the monotony.

July 21st 1972, Friday

I went into the city to find myself a job. I enquired at the museum about archaeological digs, but on finding that they only paid a five-pound food voucher every week, I went to the Employment Exchange. They could not be much more helpful, but told me that there were jobs for "students only" at the City Engineer's Department. I managed to get the address of the place from him, but discovered after a long and expensive bus ride that he had directed me to the Housing Department for some reason, possibly so that no-one could say that he had given me the job, me not being a student.

I eventually found the right place, just round the corner from the canal basin in fact, and was taken on as a street sweeper, to start on Monday, at just under twenty pounds per week, and working "a week in hand".

Late in the evening, I heard the sound of a boat, and on looking out saw a full length narrow boat coming into the basin. A young man sitting on the bows shouted out "Stop!", and the engine was put into reverse just in time to stop the boat from crashing into the end of the canal. It turned out to be a party of Venture Scouts who had taken the wrong turning at Hawkesbury Junction, and were now very annoyed because they had to get back to Tardebigge on the Worcester & Birmingham Canal by the next morning. No chance of that, I think. They gave me some coffee and biscuits, and we talked about canals for some time before retiring to bed.

July 22nd 1972, Saturday

In the morning, the boat had gone, but another had taken its place, a hotel boat called the Tsarina, which had just unloaded its passengers and was waiting for a fresh lot to arrive. It was his own boat, and he was building up quite a successful business; it seems to be quite a good life.

At lunchtime I walked into the city and wandered around, looking at Holy Trinity church and the new cathedral. The cathedral is magnificent, especially the Baptistry window, but of course Coventry Cathedral has been much written about elsewhere. The only small disappointment I found were the profusion of crowd control ropes inside and barriers outside, together with a surprising lack of space outside too. What space there is, is littered with shops and cafes, ice cream stalls and Americans. Perhaps it is just as well that there are no good views of the exterior, as it is not very impressive; certainly it gives no hint of the beauty inside. I can see the cathedral from my boat, and it looks rather like a factory.

Coventry Cathedral. Picture from's page about Coventry

July 23rd 1972, Sunday

I spent the day in a very lazy way, in fact having what I set out for, a holiday. At one o'clock and nine o'clock the bells of the Old Cathedral ring two verses of "Praise to the Lord, the Almighty, the King of Creation", which makes a change from the usual Westminster chimes.

In the evening, two young children, a boy and a girl, spent some time talking to me, and telling me all about their holiday in Skegness. I think they are charming. They tell me that their parents have said that I am "alright to talk to". Their parents are spending their spare time mending a boat, and probably think I am lonely, which I am a bit, besides getting the children from under their feet for a bit. The children have promised to be my friends until I leave. They certainly brighten the place up.

July 30th 1972, Sunday

During the past week quite a number of boats have visited the Basin, mostly staying for the night and disappearing in the morning without making contact. Another team of Venture Scouts came in, on schedule this time, but there was not much time to talk, as they all got their best clothes on and wandered down to the town to have what they called a "rave up". They obviously did, because late at night they came back singing their heads off. Their boat was another converted working narrow boat, but with fewer "mod cons". In fact, instead of being the equivalent of a canal hotel, it was a waterborne tent - rather like mine, only much bigger of course. It still looked like an old working boat, with the board along the top, and the tarpaulins across. Unfortunately, there were no roses and castles on it, which spoiled the picture somewhat.

When the Aphrodite, a beautiful new fibreglass cruiser came in, I soon made friends with the owners, Martin and Helen. They kept their boat at Whilton Marina on the Grand Union, and they were on holiday. After dark on the night they arrived, a middle aged couple came in on their boat, and immediately asked me to move up a bit so that they could moor, even though there was plenty of room elsewhere. I was more than a little annoyed, especially as he gaily announced that he would move my boat back in the morning - no apology or politeness of any kind. When Helen and Martin got back from their evening out, they were annoyed as well, for the new arrival had moored with their bow rubbing against Aphrodite's propeller. Eventually they were persuaded to move, and promptly backed their boat straight into mine, and had to move again. Luckily they did no damage, but as they were leaving the next morning, they had a good try by bumping Phoenix, which had just been repainted. Thankfully, such people are untypical of the sort one meets on the canals.

The next night, Martin and Helen invited me to go for "a drink" with them. It turned out to be several drinks in more than one pub, but I was certainly not complaining. Afterwards they bought me some faggots, chips and peas, and we spent the rest of the evening talking on their boat. I discovered that I liked faggots; up until then I did not even know what they looked like - excellent.

Work sweeping the roads is hard, but could be a lot worse, and I need the money. Most of the time I have been doing what they call "litter picking", which includes emptying rubbish bins and sweeping up broken glass and anything else which should not be on the pavement. On Friday, I had been brought back to the depot early, and was detailed to shovel away a great pile of burnt out rubbish. It had been brought back smouldering in a lorry, and had burst into flames as soon as it was tipped into the open. I did not get paid this week, as I am working a week in hand, but I did get a "sub", of one pound per day, to tide me over until next pay-day.

August 5th 1972, Saturday

On Monday and Tuesday I went to work, but on Wednesday I woke up late with a splitting headache, so rather than face the sack or a humiliating dressing down, I asked for my cards. To get the sack from a road-sweeping job would be the ultimate failure! So, on Friday I went to collect my wages and cards from the Council House in the city, and started to think about where next to stop for a job.

On the Thursday I had been helping a young man named Gordon with his boat, which he was repairing and fitting out. I mended his hooters, which up until then had merely been making a rasping sound; all that was required was to put a piece of cardboard between the core of the solenoid and the contact breaker - a bit of a botch up, but it worked perfectly. Then I helped to reglue a seam on the top of the boat. The old rubber solution was difficult to remove, and took a couple of hours to complete.

There is a Model Railway Club in an old warehouse adjoining the canal, so I dropped in to one of their meetings. While there, a girl appeared in a terrible state. She was the girlfriend of one of the members, and everyone was of the opinion that she was drunk, but it looked to me as if she was doped up to the eyeballs, especially as she did not even flinch when water was thrown in her face.

Saturday arrived, and I was getting ready to leave. I had bought provisions the evening before, after going to the cinema to see The Wizard of Oz, a charming film that has lost none of its magic even after so many years. I digress, however. I was checking the hooks and eyelets around the canvas on my boat, when a middle aged man approached me and offered me a job. I was flabbergasted. The job turned out to be with the car hire firm, based right opposite me in the basin. After getting over my initial surprise, I promptly accepted. It seems that I will have to wash cars and clean them inside, but I shall find out more on Monday when I start.

August 8th 1972, Tuesday

After two days work, I find the job quite amenable, entailing quite a bit of driving. We check the cars for safety, wash them, and fill them up with petrol if necessary. On the first day I had to drive a thirty-hundredweight van to the filling station, an awesome prospect, as I had never driven anything bigger than a car before. I managed to reverse it round a blind corner without mishap, so I was well pleased.

The pay I shall be getting is not very good, only seventeen pounds per week before tax for a normal working week, but as I shall be working eleven hours per day, I should earn quite a bit altogether.

People seem to be very generous to me. I tried to think of everything I have been given, but could not remember half of the list. Now I have been given an excellent pair of shoes, which joins a hosepipe for my bilge pump, a packet of cigarettes, and so many other things. I cannot thank people enough.

September 5th 1972, Tuesday - Coventry to the Wyken Arm and Back

It has been a long time since the last entry in this diary. A lot has happened. I gave up the job last Friday, intending to move off today, but I have decided to stay for the boat rally on Saturday and Sunday. There are still odd jobs to be done, so I shall continue to get a little income.

My work had progressed smoothly, but I felt in need of a break, so last weekend being a Bank Holiday, I decided to make a small trip up the canal. I set off back in the direction I had come, seeing new interest in the industrialised five miles to Hawkesbury Junction (otherwise known as Sutton Stop). I had with me a booklet produced by the Coventry Canal Society which pointed out features of interest between the Basin and the Stop Lock. At the latter, I stopped at the Greyhound, as I had on my journey in. I met a sun-tanned couple, who looked the boating type, and we were soon engaged in conversation. It transpired that they were having a six-week holiday in a nine-foot sailing dinghy; they had already travelled over five hundred miles on the canals, and all without a motor. They either rowed or towed, whichever was the easier, with brief interludes of sailing whenever the wind was right. Up until then, my boat was the smallest I had ever seen with anyone living on board. They both won my complete admiration.

After inspecting a pile of debris dredged out of the Ashby Canal, I continued, now rather behind schedule, as I had hoped to get to Newbold by nightfall. At about six o'clock, I came across the entrance to the Wyken Arm, where the Coventry Canal Society and Coventry Cruising Club have their headquarters. I passed through the moorings of the Cruising Club and stopped at the Canal Society Basin beyond the motorway, where Rob the harbourmaster, whom I had met before, showed me where I could moor for the night.

That evening I was given a meal by a couple who were repairing a boat in the basin prior to a two-week holiday down to Oxford; they told me that I could sleep on the sofa in the clubroom. This I did, not without misgivings however, for it was the first night for nearly three months that I had not spent on my boat. The sofa was comfortable though, and I slept well. I was woken in the morning by two small children who talked me into consciousness, and forced me to get up, as it was past eleven o'clock.

I eventually set off, after talking with several people, and stopped for a beer at the Elephant and Castle pub, where the Pearl Hyde is moored, and I spoke with the man who runs her. The Pearl Hyde is a restored narrow boat, named in memory of Alderman Pearl Hyde, a previous Lord Mayor of Coventry. It takes Old Age Pensioners for trips on the cut, but is shortly to be replaced by a slightly better boat.

On passing through Sutton Stop again, I found that a mud boat was blocking my way. Fearing that it had been put there purposely to stop navigation, I walked back along the towpath to enquire. There I met an elderly man sitting by the water splitting a log of wood with a hammer and chisel. Instinctively, I knew who it was - Joe Skinner, about whom I had heard and read so much. I stopped and helped him.

Joe Skinner is very well known, having been a working boatman, with his wife Rose, but nowhere do I remember a description of the man himself or his character, most people seem to use him as a walking archive of things past: "Joe Skinner remembers when..." etc., ignoring his amazing personality. He accepted my help with thanks, casting no remarks about my long hair, and advised me to move the mud boat myself. His eyes twinkle, and every now and again he makes a sudden blink as if to say "Listen to me", or to emphasise some point he had just made.

Joe helped me move the mud boat, and I was off on my way "home" to Coventry, grateful for having met the famous Joe Skinner.

Joe Skinner. Picture taken from Off the Mainline by Tony Lewery - Friendship Remembered

September 8th 1972, Friday - Last Minute Shopping

Today was to be a shopping day, as I had virtually no stores in the boat, or so I thought. It was not until afterwards that I was to find eleven large tins of baked beans in the front compartment.

During the past few days, I have been getting friendly with Paul and Barbara from the narrow boat Fox; they were hurriedly getting ready for the rally, when the Lady Mayoress was to dine aboard their boat, so I was able to help in a small way. They very kindly gave me a few meals, and numerous cups of coffee. They took me up to The Greyhound pub at Sutton Stop, to meet Joe and Rose Skinner, who are nearly always there in the evening. Joe's greeting to Barbara was a lecherous hand on her knee, and a cry of "Ain't you got no stockings on then, gal?" Rose, meanwhile, allowed me to buy her a Guinness, and as a toast, said "Well, this won't catch the last one, then!" The pair of them led the conversation all evening, the place would not be the same without them.

September 9th 1972, Saturday

The rally starts today. Three Royal Navy boats have arrived, sixty-foot models of real boats, being a frigate, a destroyer, and a Polaris submarine. They looked quite odd with tiller steering until the superstructure had been added and the tillers removed.

Royal Navy narrow boats. Picture from The Stoke Sentinel

Joe and Rose Skinner were towed in to the canal basin on their butty boat Friendship, to the delight of everyone, who had thought that Friendship was going into dry dock that weekend.

Joe & Rose Skinner aboard their boat Friendship. Picture from Canal & River Trust

The rally itself was a bit noisy, with records playing all the time, and side-shows within a few yards, but it gave me an opportunity to meet people on the canal, apart from the usual hire boats. Bob Bush, the canal painter, was moored directly in front of me, and I made his acquaintance over several drinking sessions.

Bob Bush, canal painter. Picture from

There was a film crew making a record of the rally as well as a film about the Coventry Canal, and after meeting them, they invited me back to their digs for lunch. They hope to sell the completed film to a television company, but they are obviously more optimistic than I would be in their place.

September 10th 1972, Sunday

The rally continued, and I had to say goodbye to all my new friends. I had originally hoped to leave today and get to Hawkesbury Junction so as to get a start on my journey to Stratford, rashly promised in three days. Unfortunately, Friendship was blocking my way for most of the day, and I had left my raincoat in the car hire office. A vital piece of clothing.

Narrowboat Heather Bell, and Narrowboat Friendship behind it with Rose Skinner on board, and behind Friendship is the Royal Navy model of a destroyer, at the September 1972 Coventry Canal Society Rally in Coventry Basin. The green tent of my boat Dondevoy is just visible to the left. There are some canal-style painted flowerpots marked 'Bargains' on the table in front of Dondevoy. These were painted by Bob Bush, whose boat was moored just in front of mine. Photo by kind permission of Jane Gammie

September 1972 Coventry Canal Society Rally in Coventry Basin. The green tent of my boat Dondevoy is visible to the right. Bob Bush's butty boat Capella is visible, and in front of it there is a dark shape which might possibly be the Royal Navy model of a nuclear submarine! Photo by kind permission of Jane Gammie

Later in the day, I acted as ballast in a tug of war between two narrow boats. I was on the Trout, and was treated to a touch of Bob Major on handbells just before the contest.

During the prize giving, I sat on the roof of Fox just behind the rostrum. What amused me particularly was the man who collected the prize for the most safety conscious boat. He received the cup with his arm in a sling, because he had had an accident.

September 11th 1972, Monday - Coventry to Tamworth

Stratford-upon-Avon in three days! Everyone says it is impossible, but I will try it - indeed, I must, for I am meeting my sister Sarah there on the thirteenth.

So, I set off early in the morning, not paying much attention to scenery, but concentrating on the job in hand. Stupidly, I let myself be talked into spending an hour at a pub near Nuneaton after breaking a drive pin, and the whole thing slowed me down, so that after negotiating the flight of eleven locks at Atherstone, I was obliged to carry on well after dark in order to reach Tamworth, where I moored just above the top lock.

September 12th 1972, Tuesday - Tamworth to Camp Hill

A better day's cruising, although my goal of Stratford still looks far away. I negotiated twenty-seven[1] locks in all, mooring in the Camp Hill flight, because the top lock was closed at dusk, and I was caught just before reaching it, the lock keeper being unwilling to wait for the half hour or so it would take me to reach it.

All the locks in the Birmingham area were very dirty down the sides with a thick greasy slime. Salford Lock, on the Warwick & Birmingham Junction Canal was a stop lock, with a rise of only six inches, bit it still took me some time to negotiate, as the square shaft on the lower gate paddle was only about three quarters of an inch across, so I had to jam a piece of canvas in my windlass in order to get the gate open.

[1] I must have miscounted, I make the total 26 locks now!

September 13th 1972, Wednesday - Camp Hill to Preston Bagot

Today I am supposed to be in Stratford, but it looks as though I am not going to make it; apart from the thirty-six locks on the Southern section of the Stratford Canal, there are five broad gauge locks at Knowle on the Grand Union, not to mention the last lock in the flight where I moored.

And so it was. The countryside slowly reappeared as I left Birmingham, amid the bricked up remains of old arms and wharves, and after a short tunnel I came to Knowle Locks, which took me some time to get through as they were all set against me. Then came another long pound until Kingswood Junction where a short arm containing one lock leads from the Grand Union to a large basin in the middle of the Lapworth flight on the Stratford Canal.

Here I had to pay one pound fifty for one week's cruising, as the Southern Stratford canal belongs to the National Trust. One of the locks had no balance beam on the lower gate, as for some reason it had been sawn off. I eventually moored in Preston Bagot locks, well after dark.

September 14th 1972, Thursday - Preston Bagot to The Mason's Arms

Luckily I had arranged with Sarah to meet on the Thursday instead of the Wednesday if I was late, so I continued, passing the spectacular Edstone Aqueduct. Shortly afterwards I was stopped by some people on a boat who told me that Sarah was just half an hour down the canal, and might be visiting Mary Arden's Cottage. I did not see her, however, and continued to the Old Stratford flight[1] where we had arranged to meet in the first place.

I stopped at the top lock of the flight and walked back, to have a look in Mary Arden's cottage. I found Sarah's name in the visitor's book, and was told I had missed her by about an hour. I continued down the flight, except for the last three locks, and waited.

After only an hour, Sarah appeared. She had gone back down to Stratford and had started walking up the canal again. Together, we worked our way up the entire flight again, and chose a mooring site by a field where Sarah could pitch her tent. This done, we spent the rest of the evening in the local pub, The Mason's Arms.

[1] What I described as the "Old Stratford" flight of locks is I believe more correctly called the Wilmcote Flight.

September 15th 1972, Friday - The Mason's Arms to the Old Stratford Flight

In the morning, after a very late start, we continued up the canal, over the two aqueducts to the Navigation Inn at Wooton Warwen, where we met some young men from a narrow boat. A bit of judicious chat secured us an invitation to coffee on their boat, where we stayed until it was time for them to leave. We followed their boat down the canal again after a decent interval to avoid catching up with them, and eventually moored just above the bottom lock of the Old Stratford flight, from where we were given a lift on a boat right into Stratford.

When we eventually walked back, and were playing a game of cards over a cup of coffee, the young men we had met before came up from Stratford in a somewhat drunken state. They stayed and talked for some time, during which Sarah fell asleep. So, it turned out to be a late night after all.

September 16th 1972, Saturday - The Old Stratford Flight to Stratford

Day started a little earlier than yesterday, as it had been a warmer night, so sleep had been easier. We set out in the Stratford direction. In the first lock we took a bit longer than usual, as the top gate leaked rather badly, making the bottom gate hard to open even with the paddles fully raised. I was unable to assist Sarah, as I was in the boat down in the lock. Immediately afterwards, we were accosted by a woman brandishing a windlass, who shouted that it was customary to wait at locks for the next boat, and muttered about the conservation of water being an unwritten law of the canals. I do not know all the unwritten laws of the canals, but certainly one of them is not to tell people what to do in such a rude manner. I would have waited for them had they been in sight, or if they had sent someone ahead to ask politely, but after that incident I was determined not to pass through a lock with them under any circumstances.

Typical bridge on the Southern Stratford Canal. These bridges are made of cast iron and are split in the middle to allow a tow rope to pass through. This means that there is no need for a tow path under the bridge, which made bridges cheaper to build. Photo from

To make things worse, at the next lock they opened the top paddle before we had closed the bottom gate - there must be an unwritten law about that somewhere. In fact it is done all the time in the interest of speed, but to crash a gate with such force out of pure malice, on a canal in as poor condition as the Southern Stratford, is not quite the thing to do.

We moored above the top lock in Stratford itself, where we found the people who had given us a lift the night before. The reason we stopped was to let the obnoxious people through. Unfortunately they stopped for a while at the same place, so I glared at them in fine style while Sarah pretended to be buying something at the shop. This ploy obviously worked, for they soon cast off and went through the locks - alone. We locked through later with our new friends, mooring in the basin outside the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre.

Once Sarah had left for Cambridge, I spent the evening in the Dirty Duck down the road, and talked to an American couple who turned out to be more interesting than the usual tourist type.

September 17th 1972, Sunday

Another lazy Sunday sitting in the sun, watching people in the park, and tidying up the boat. It was the kind of day I seem to get so rarely, so I made the most of doing mostly nothing.

September 18th 1972, Monday

In a fit of good humour, after doing my shopping and playing darts in the pub, I invited a whole park benchful of young people to the boat for coffee. Three accepted, and we spent the afternoon talking until they had to get back to the Youth Hostel. All three were going to the play that night, so I went over and bought a "standing" ticket. The play was Coriolanus, the plot of which does not bear repeating here even if you do not know it. The acting made up for any thematic deficiencies however, and I enjoyed the evening, especially as I managed to find an empty seat.

September 19th 1972, Tuesday

Oh dear! I seem to be getting up later each day, as I was not up and about until half past eleven. I went straight away and had a bath at the public place nearby, which cheered me up as well as cleaning me.

I had thought to go to the play again, but all tickets were sold, and I was forced to queue for possible returned tickets, I was second from the front by the time the performance started, and so felt rather disappointed when we were turned away.

Further back in the queue were three American girls, who I invited for coffee, and then to the pub. They were disappointed too, as well as being puzzled by the whole concept of queuing. They had pretty well "done" Europe in the approved fashion, and were "doing" Stratford as a postscript to "doing" England. Sigh.

We all decided that, as we had missed Julius Caesar, we would all make sure of seeing Antony and Cleopatra the next day.

September 20th 1972, Wednesday

The first thing I did on gaining consciousness was to go over to the theatre and buy a ticket, to make sure of getting one. Then to the pub, where I met some young men who took me in their car to the church where Shakespeare is buried. A disappointment - admission fees were being charged to the chancel where the monument is, so we boycotted it while agreeing we all would have put something in a simple collection plate or box.

The play was magnificent, helped by Janet Suzman as Cleopatra and Corin Redgrave as a neurotic Octavius Caesar[1]. The three girls had also got tickets, so it was a good evening in all.

[1] This was the famous Trevor Nunn production with Janet Suzman as Cleopatra, Richard Johnson as Mark Antony, and also had Patrick Stewart playing Enobarbus very entertainingly, as well as Ben Kingsley and Tim Pigott-Smith in smaller parts. The BBC filmed a version of this production in 1974, and this is included below:

September 21st 1972, Thursday - Stratford to The Mason's Arms

It was high time I left Stratford, so I got moving by midday, working up through the locks, and nodding cheerfully to passing boats. One blade of my propeller had broken off on the way in to Stratford, so the vibration was terrible. I could see the boat shaking, and hear my teeth rattling, and there seems no chance of a new propeller for quite a while.

I got to the top of the Old Stratford flight before nightfall, and revisited the Mason's Arms, where there was a good friendly crowd, although the lights failed three times. One fellow I talked to was a policeman, who seemed to do a bit of poaching as well. On reflection, maybe poaching is too strong a word, but the talk was all of ferrets, traps, and guns.

September 22nd 1972, Friday - The Mason's Arms to Lapworth

Another noon start - I think this will be the rule in future, that, come what may, I must be away by midday. A good idea.

I passed fourteen locks in all, being chased by a lockful of boats for most of the way. After holding them up quite badly at lock twenty-seven, the one with the broken balance beam, I decided to let them pass, so after the next lock I moored, meeting a girl struggling with ten gallons of water. I helped, naturally, and secured an invitation to coffee, which, after the return of someone who I presumed to be her husband, stretched on to supper and a drink at the local pub. I seem to be visiting an awful lot of pubs.

It was not her husband - the husband lived on a nearby boat with the wife of the fellow I saw. A complicated situation, more so than can be written down here. Bella and Jonathan (or was it Jeremy?) were their names, on the narrow boat Heron. I shall be in trouble if I have those names wrong. The boat has windows like the Alhambra, and is crawling with cats of all sizes and colours. Excellent company.

September 23rd 1972, Saturday - Lapworth to the Birmingham Level

Up the last five locks of the Southern Stratford, and past the canal office, where no-one asked to see my licence. Thankfully, for it was three days overdue, so it was with a sigh of relief that I moored for lunch in Lapworth Basin. Afterwards there was the long haul up the first part of the Northern Stratford Canal, back on British Waterways territory where the locks are so much easier to work.

I was amused to see a boat out for the weekend, loaded with people all shouting instructions at each other, and pulling aimlessly on strings, with the apparent purpose of grounding the boat still further.

In the thick of the flight, I had an interested audience, who followed me up a few locks, and asked me questions as I walked briskly about. This sort of thing is very ego boosting, but wearing, as one has to put up a good show to impress them fully with efficient locking.

Lock 7 of the Lapworth Flight on the Northern Stratford Canal. Picture from http©Copyright Roger Kidd://, licenced for use with this Creative Commons licence.

I moored just two locks from the top, where the Birmingham Level begins, just by the unconverted narrow boats Redshank and Greenshank. I had worked hard all day, passing twenty-two locks, and realised that I was still in the same flight, at least by name. Nick and Corinna lived on this working pair of boats, with their two children. I had heard about them and was glad to meet them. They make a very bare living doing Punch & Judy shows and a few other things. They gave me coffee and offered food, which I refused, for apart from not being particularly hungry, I knew they could ill afford to be so generous. We spent the evening in the usual way, talking.

Nick & Corinna Grey on Redshank & Greenshank a few years later in Bristol. Picture from The Bristol Post

September 24th 1972, Sunday - The Birmingham Level to Gas Street, Birmingham

I woke fairly early, despite being pounced on by Nick's cat during the night. However, it was another twelve o'clock start, and after negotiating the upper two locks in the Lapworth flight, I had a clear run all the way to Birmingham. I stopped twice on the way, once to buy a new propeller, and once for petrol. The propeller proved awkward, as the inner parts had corroded into place, and needed prolonged bashing with a hammer to free them. This bashing made a little filing necessary in order to fit the new blade, but all was fixed inside an hour and a half. A small muddle over change meant a delay until the man who had served me returned from lunch, but all was sorted out, and I was able to get to Gas Street in Birmingham precisely at seven o'clock, after passing through the unique[1]stop lock at King's Norton, and cruising up the Worcester & Birmingham Canal. I arrived shivering with cold, after sitting in more or less the same position for several hours, but a meal soon warmed me, and I went round the corner to The Crown for a drink.

The pub, a huge one, was full of an assortment of odd characters, none of whom looked interesting enough to talk to. It was the kind of place where people go to drink, and nothing else, despite its plush fittings. Everyone seemed as if they were still working rather than enjoying themselves - I had forgotten what life in a big city was like.

[1] [The King's Norton stop lock is an historic feature. It has guillotine gates and is nowadays permanently open. B.E.N.]

King's Norton Stop Lock. Picture from A Brummie's Guide to Birmingham

September 25th 1972, Monday - Gas Street Birmingham to Wolverhampton

After arranging with the boatyard at Autherley Junction about the use of their slipway, and phoning my parents to tell them the plan, I was on my way. I had decided to end the cruise rather than hazard leaving the boat somewhere during the twelve days I was to spend in France. I will probably find the weather too cold on my return anyway.

I was determined to avoid the Birmingham Main Line route through to Wolverhampton as far as possible, as I had been reliably informed that it was straight and boring, so I went round by the old route through Smethwick Locks, where there is a disused set of locks running parallel.

Up until these locks, I had gone round all the old loops of the line that I could find, making three in all. Two of them are officially listed as "not navigable", so I was pleased to get round, especially the Windsor Green loop, which almost defeated me, as the water was very shallow, very weedy, and littered with small items of debris such as telegraph poles and railway sleepers. I picked up a long piece of driftwood and poled myself through the worst part. The other "closed" loop was easy in comparison.

At the top of Smethwick Locks, I moored for a meal on the Telford Aqueduct, overlooking the wide Main Line in its deep cutting, and was able to gain satisfaction from the fact that I was avoiding it.

Telford's aqueduct taking the Engine Arm over the Birmingham Main Line. Picture from Wikipedia

Shortly afterwards, the canal meets the motorway, and passes back and forth underneath, and for long stretches directly beneath the stilts of the raised road. It is here that an incredible coincidence occurs: two canals, a railway, and a motorway all cross one another at the same point, with an ordinary road bridge not far away. The motorway, on the top level of the complex, is supported by enormous diagonal struts reaching right down to the middle of the Main Line down below. An impressive sight.

Struts of the M4 bridge over the Birmingham Main Line, seen from the Stewart Aqueduct. Picture from the Tuesday Night Club's 2000 tour at

The route I had taken was apparently more industrialised than the Birmingham Level, but I think I preferred it to what I had seen of the Main Line. I got my third bird's-eye view of the latter as I passed over another aqueduct, running over the arm leading to the Netherton Tunnel, which I could see on one side, yawning blackly far below.

Northern entrance of Netherton Tunnel, seen from Tividale Aqueduct. Photo from

Just here on this route, the road bridges over the canal are being strengthened, probably quite necessarily, but completely without regard for the original aesthetic beauty of the brickwork. Steel girders are being placed straight across underneath the arches, destroying the curved lines, and also reducing the headroom.

As time was getting on, and I had made good progress during the day, I stopped as soon as I saw a convenient pub. If I seem to have been on one mammoth pub crawl, I have given a false impression; I use the pubs to learn more about the cut, and also because they have toilets, while my boat does not.

September 26th 1972, Tuesday - Wolverhampton to Autherley Junction

I was a little concerned that I might not make Autherley Junction by nightfall, but I need not have worried, as I reached the head of the Wolverhampton Flight of twenty-one locks by half past noon, and began a leisurely descent. At the fifth lock, I met a boat coming the other way. The people on board were complaining that the lock gates would not open fully, and rather than do anything themselves, they had summoned the lock keeper, whom they had apparently insulted earlier that morning, and he had been unwilling to help them. He was most helpful to me, however, opening a few gates and paddles ready for me. He warned me to leave the paddles properly closed in the lower locks, as there was a dry pound further down the flight.

When I reached the bottom lock, I realised that the lock keeper was talking through his hat. The top gate was wedged at least six inches open, and had I emptied the lock, would have leaked like a waterfall. No wonder the pound was nearly dry. I soon fixed the trouble by raking out a large stone which was resting on the sill, and the gate closed properly for me.

Now came my last piece of open cruising - the short run up to Autherley Junction, where I arrived before six o'clock.


The diary stops at this point. It omits the arrival of my father the next day, and the great difficulty we both had in dragging the by now waterlogged and heavy Dondevoy out of the water and onto the trailer. The entire trip had covered 346 miles of actual cruising, and 269 locks. Dondevoy never saw the water again; she was stored by being leaned and lashed to a tree for several years, and eventually when it became plain that her cruising days were over, formed part of a splendid bonfire. B.E.N.

Copyright ©1972 Ben Newsam. The author of this diary may be contacted at