The Plan: drive up the M1 from London to Junction 16, Daventry. Park in the village of Lower Shuckburgh. Walk across the fields to collect the boat from Birdingbury Wharf. Take Eileen along the Grand Union (Warwick & Napton Canal), via the three broad locks at Calcutt, 4 miles and 2¾ furlongs back to Lower Shuckburgh and moor near Bridge 104. Collect the car. Return to London.
All in all a Plan for a grand day out for all the family – a balancing act of walking, boating, picnicking and generally being out&about together.
The reality: One of those children’s summer holidays sunshine&showers days. The drive up was relaxed. Classic FM played. The traffic was light. We made good time. We parked at Bridge 104. The sun shone, August intense. Rucksacks and brollies were divvied out.
Down onto the towpath. A couple of boats moored, boaters standing and staring, leisurely conversations, a warm ‘Morning!’ as we passed. The gentle conviviality of the Cut.
At footbridge 105 we turned right, away from the canal, to cut diagonally across the fields, passing behind Calcutt Spinney and the back of Ventnor Marina’s Sunrise Basin to rejoin the canal at Tomlow Bridge No. 18.
Cow fields. Nosey black and white bullocks – happily they didn’t hassle. A public bridleway, the route waymarked with arrows. A chance to chat, so long since all five of us had walked together.
We admired ponies in a paddock, spotted stoats on the path, hip-hopped our way over water-filled hoof-craters along rutted tracks, beneath oak and ash. Cottonwool clouds and looming grey storm clouds adding August drama to the wide open sky. London so often constrains such views, but here the Warwickshire fields opened a panorama.
A time to savour, or feel optimistic even.
We picnicked on the boat on the wharf, sandwiches and crisps.
I checked the water and oil levels, both fine; the stern tube gland needed a ¼ turn to force through a little more heavy grease. Then, ensure the boat’s out of gear, a ¼ turn of the key to heat the plugs for a count of 20, lever the Morse throttle a little forward, a ¾ turn firing the engine, and a little more throttle. The engine proved sluggish to start. White smoke billowed through the raw water exhaust, finally she turned, and old Eileen shivered back to life, always a moment of elation.
The final domestic chore was to haul a gerry can of red diesel from the bow hold and replenish the fuel tank as the engine steadied into a heartbeat slow beat.
Ready for the off.
Bow rope untied first and mooring chains stowed. Walk to the stern, untie stern rope and stow chains. Step aboard as C comes out with mugs of fresh tea. A grin. ‘Perfect!’
The kids settled, engaged, playing and talking rather than sniping and winding each other up.
The engine goes well. The boat, a little deeper in the water after the ton of steel added to the hull during the re-plating, is responsive, if heavy. I sit on the roof, alum (helm/tiller) in hand, drink tea, take photos. Joe comes up to sit with Claire.
Ducks. Bonfires. Pirate flags. Sunshine and umbrella shade. Dramatic skies. All’s (very) well with the world.
A queue at Calcutt Bottom Lock. We moor alongside a waiting boat. Utter contentment. No rush. The patchwork nature of the day is working out a treat, things are going well. I allow myself a moment’s relaxation.
When our turn to lock-up comes, I walk Claire and the Boys up to lockside to acquaint her with the particular joys of the broad locks.
I return to the boat to guide her into the lock…
The engine was labouring, choking, struggling. The same symptoms we’d had when we left Stockton Bottom Lock eight weeks back. Whatever issue that’s killing the engine, it’s not hasn’t resolved. Listened, all but helpless, to the old engine’s death-throws, a slowing, strangled struggle then silence.
End of the road?
A boat without an engine little more than a skip afloat. A chocolate teapot.
Summer dreams go up in smoke.
Huge decisions now need to be made.
My initial and overwhelming desire was to hand Eileen padlock over to the nearest passerby and walk away. Happily, what I actually did was to walk up to Calcutt yard where an obliging mechanic came back to the boat to offer diagnostic advice.
He pretty much confirmed last rites.
The first priority, before soul-searching and decision making begins, was to get the boat out of the lock queue and out of everyone’s way.
Luckily(?) we were almost adjacent to Calcutt Marina’s entrance, unluckily a gale was blowing mischievously through that entrance. The fates can be damned cruel at times!
C & I discuss option and come up with a plan. I pull the boat backwards to a point slightly below the entrance. Claire and the Boys then walked over the locks to the marina side ready to catch the bow ropes if I’m able to pole the boat against the wind towards them.
Push off the bow, encourage momentum using the 10′ long-pole standing on the front of the boat. Punt, heave, pole pushing into thick soft mud, push, twist, pole released from the mud, pull-out, push in, punt, twist.
The wind blows (bastard!) and the sun burns. However, slowly, painfully slowly, Eileen’s 11-12 tonnes turn into the mouth of the marina entrance. I’m able to throw the bow rope to C., kindly bystanders, of course there were bystanders, caught the stern rope and with one helluva joint effort we coaxed Eileen into the marina where we were immediately blown onto a mud bank beneath a hanging ash – roots, overhanging branches, snarled chimneys, mugs swiped spilling dregs across the cabin top – the sun getting hotter, me hotter under the collar.
A kindly boating couple offered a tow, but sadly they struggled to maintain steerage against the whip of the wind, in the end their struggles prompted C & I to try to push the boat off the mud again. Sudden slide, slip, and she’s free. We were then able to drag Eileen alongside a couple of trad. boats and moor.
And that’s it…
The engine’s no longer reliable. We’re in limbo. The trip we’d envisaged this Summer over.
Eileen’s fate hangs in the balance.
Sod’s Law that when you’re down the kicks keep coming.
an axe fell today
unnaturally quiet Cut
clean thru summer plans
an engine sang its last
plainsong broke old Eileen’s heart