I’ve got Faith

It is Sunday morning. This isn’t going to be a sermon – Faith is a 50ft narrowboat, and this week she became all mine. Built in 1979, she is pretty much a classic, and lovingly looked after for the past nine years by her previous owner, Keith and Sonia. And I do mean lovingly looked after – Faith is in superb order, considering her age. I very much sense that Keith, certainly, is quite sorry to see her go, but I think he and Sonia have greater boating plans in mind.

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Narrowboat Faith in all her glory.

Faith lives at Saul Junction Marina, some eight miles south of the city of Gloucester. Not long ago, I decided a day out was in order, so I caught the bus and headed northwards out of Bristol towards the little village of Whitminster, the closest point along the bus route to Saul Junction. For a bus, it takes half the morning to get there, then there is a mile-and-three-quarters walk to the Gloucester-Sharpness Canal (big and wide, originally built for sea-going coastal vessels to transit from the tidal river Severn to the docks in Gloucester), not far from Frampton-on-Severn. The walk was worth it; Saul Junction (where the former Stroudwater Navigation once crossed the Sharpness) is an idyllic spot, complete with swing bridges and a smashing cafe for a spot of breakfast, lunch or even afternoon tea…perhaps all three if one’s appetite can cope.

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Sunset over Saul Junction

I wandered in, just as a tourist on that day, to the marina office, where I met Cheryl and Bob who run the place, and very briefly (since she was on her day off, and rushing hither-and-thither) Nicki, who keeps a tight reign on the boat brokerage. They all looked at me a bit sideways at first – after all I was just a strange face casually wandering around – but after not many minutes, the welcome that has come to epitomise the Saul Junction community for me shone brightly through. The threat to one day spend my retirement years afloat has been there for a while, as you might be aware, dear reader, but on this Friday in question I felt hooked – Saul Junction felt like a perfect spot for me.
The weeks rolled on, and communications with Nicki began in earnest. “I’ve got a real gem of a boat coming onto the market soon,” she beamed. “She’s a mid-engine…would you consider a mid-engine?” Frankly, the answer to that was an immediate “yes” – mid-engine boats typically feature the classic-type diesel power units… dub-dub-dub-dub… associated with boats, perhaps, in the early part of the last century, rather than the modern high-revving engines built today. A visit was duly arranged, and that’s how I came to meet Faith.

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Other suitable candidates? Not at this time – both of these two are already well-loved!

Commentators about canal life will often advise to spend much time looking at many boats, but almost universally they will tell you that you will know which boat is to be “yours” almost the moment you set foot on her for the first time. So it was with Faith. I loved her.

Nevertheless, Faith was not cheap, and at the asking price, my budget was going to be severely, perhaps even fatally, stretched. Then came a phone call from Nicki one Saturday afternoon – it was one of those massive moments in life, when one instinctively knows that something just has to be. Nicki’s words, in so many words – Keith was, beyond everything, wanting Faith to go to someone who would continue to love and cherish her; it was almost as if Faith was choosing me. And so it was that that the die was cast, and the deal took shape, a good deal for me, since the stress on the budget was being smoothed away. I will look after Faith, love and cherish her – she will, after all, be my home, probably now until my final days.

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This graceful individual is one of a pair – apparently they’re both quite used to activity around the marina, having grown up on these waters.

Just yesterday, then, came the massive moment as the keys were handed to me, and Faith became mine. I spent my first night on-board, and rising on a lovely, almost spring-like March Sunday morning, on the water for the first time, is something I cannot adequately put into words. So, dear reader, I’ve take a few images, in the hope that the images might do the moment a little more justice.

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Reflections on a calm evening. Calm, indeed, before the storm. Just a few hours later, the air was frigid and it was snowing, as another Siberian blast from the east arrived.

Thank-you, everyone at Saul Junction, Keith & Sonia, especially, Bob & Cheryl, Nicki, and all the Saul Junction boaters who have universally taken the time to stop and say hello as I have passed by. I feel that an extended family has taken me in as one of their own already – and for that I feel immensely humbled and privileged.

Did I do the right thing in buying narrowboat Faith?

HELL, YEAH!

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This is Bella. Always on the lookout for a bit of fuss and adulation around the marina…
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Dusk falls on another marina day, and the pontoon lights take over.
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The Canals Awake…

Spring is a lovely time of awakening. It was pretty warm for late February, an ideal opportunity to get out and about again. I wandered up through the Widcombe Lock Flight in Bath, a favourite stroll, past Sydney Wharf and on to Darlington Wharf on the Kennet & Avon.

Video camera in hand, I shot a few sequences and threw them together on the editor. Behold, the results:

What a simply splendid lifestyle, moving at not much more than two miles an hour. Another year or two of driving buses, then to the waterways with me for my final retirement. Whaddya reckon, dear reader? Sail away, or remain a land-lubber?

Bristol Harbour Festival 2016

Dateline: Sunday 17th July 2016

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The view towards and over Perot’s Bridge

I had mixed feelings about visiting this event in the centre of Bristol. Local television news had been carrying stories about local people actually complaining about this free event, moaning about the amount of alcohol being consumed, and the potential for rowdy behaviour. Nearby shops and supermarkets were being exhorted to limit the amount of alcohol they were selling to any one individual over the weekend. It seems to me that there is something quite dark and brooding about contemporary British culture – seemingly to have a good time, out with one’s friends, automatically requires the carrying of a large case of cheap beer or cider acquired from a supermarket all-to-happy to sell the stuff as a loss leader, being pretty much pickled by 9am in the morning, and making lots of rather anti-social noise. Quite how any average British socialite can enjoy anything in such an inebriated state is quite beyond me. But there we go…

 

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Towards Redcliffe Quay. The spire of St Mary Redcliffe Church dominates the skyline here. Gorgeous narrow boats moored at the jetty there…

For me, the attraction was to photograph the rich colour and spectacle of this waterfront event, one of two colourful, and free, events in Bristol over the summer. The other is the Bristol Balloon Fiesta in August; last year, it was so successful that the gates had to be closed to new admissions to ensure safety for those already inside. Wow! Yes, the Bristol Harbourside last Sunday was very busy, with visitors being herded around the quays and streets in a one-way system – give them due credit, the organisers were doing all they could to relieve bottlenecks and avoid criticism about overcrowding. But all-in-all, it was a really lovely atmosphere, come the finish, in the sunshine and fresh air. People seem to respond to sunshine somehow, their mood altogether lighter. I have no idea how things developed later in the evening – I’m not the sort who wants to hang around like a war correspondent if there is the slightest possibility of things getting at all ugly. But what I found in the mid-afternoon was a great opportunity for a family day out, perfectly safe, and hugely enjoyable. Well done, indeed, to the organisers.

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How on earth do I describe this??

There were tall ships, narrow boats, sail boats, ex-industrial steam tugs, a Royal Navy vessel, a working 35-ton steam crane, trips along the Bristol Harbour Railway, fairground attractions, artisans and food vendors all doing a roaring trade. Good to see! And we even had chaps out in the middle of the harbour on hover board contraptions powered by water jets doing all manner of aerial stunts. It all looked like great fun, albeit only for pros, but I certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed the bellies full of harbour water that these performers must surely have been consuming. Ugh! Heaven alone knows how many immunisation shots these chaps would need to keep out the harbour’s resident germs…!

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…or this??

So, enough blabber from me… I leave you with a simple gallery of images of the afternoon. Here’s to an equally successful event in 2017 🙂

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Tall Ship Kathleen and May

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Harbour Tug John King

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35-ton steam crane, in steam, and open for visitors

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Steam train rides from the M-Shed museum towards the SS Great Britain

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Something for the kiddies?

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A nice spot of afternoon jazz. They did try to book Canadian superstar act Willy Ward’s Revenge for later in the evening, but Willy was, sadly, unavailable…

The Widcombe Lock Flight

The City of Bath…

IMG_9426Here the River Avon flows placidly through the Georgian splendour that now surrounds this Roman spa town, under the Pultney Bridge and over the weir, onward towards Bristol.

Quietly, from the East, almost unnoticed, the restored Kennet & Avon canal joins the river through the Widcombe Bottom Lock, at the end of a flight of six locks, bringing this once vital trading link down some 60m from the pound at Sydney. Back in the 1970s, extensive road reconstruction across the canal whilst it was in a sorry and derelict state meant that two of the locks had to be merged during the restoration of the waterway into one deep lock, and the Bath Deep Lock is now the second deepest lock in normal narrow boat use in England…some 19ft 5in of rise and fall.

IMG_9444The Widcombe Lock Flight and the walk up to the Sydney Marina provides a lovely half hour or so of diversion, and ample opportunity for photography, rich in colour and contrast. no more babble from me about this – I merely present a small collection of photos I shot on my short ramble up the flight today…

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Fidelis Civitas

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The classic view of Worcester Cathedral, across the River Severn from the A44 road bridge

My developing interest in the waterways of Great Britain are taking me further into the heartland of Middle England in search of inspiration, and perhaps, eventually, a boat of my own to live on. I carry the name “Severn” – my cousin in British Columbia and I are the last of our line of the Family; all the descendants in this part of the clan are female – so the river also bearing our name, and flowing through my destination today, Worcester, is always of special interest.

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Diglis Basin Marina, a riot of colour, even under cloudy skies.

The Severn rises in the Cambrian Mountains of mid-Wales, thence flowing southwards through Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, to the sea in the Bristol Channel. The Severn Estuary has the second highest tidal range (if I am not mistaken) in the world after the Bay of Fundi in Canada, and as the water rushes in to the funnel-shaped estuary, it creates the phenomenon of the Severn Boar, a tidal wave spectacle which draws onlookers from far and wide – and many thrill-seekers who love to ride it on their surf boards and small boats.

Today, in summer, the Severn through Worcester is peaceful and picturesque, though England is famous for its rainfall, and the now placid river is very prone to flood in this area. Worcester Cathedral commands the view over the river in the city; English composer Sir Edward Elgar was born not far outside Worcester. Worcester is a place steeped in history and culture, notable not only for Elgar’s music, but as the location of some of the most significant battles in the English Civil War of the 17th century. Worcester was originally sympathetic to the Parliamentary cause, but spent most of the war under Royalist occupation, and the astute politicians of the day seemed to want favour from the new king, Charles II, after the war, in the hope of securing compensation. It lead to the invention of the epithet Fidelis Civitas, or “faithful city”, and this motto still forms part of the city’s coat of arms today, Civitas in Bello et Pace Fidelis (City, faithful in war and peace).

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Entering Diglis Basin at the start of the Worcester and Birmingham canal

For me, though, on this summer’s day early in the 21st century, I was looking for the colour of the riverbank and the cathedral, and also of the canal which begins its link from the Severn to the city of Birmingham not much more than a quarter of a mile downstream from the church’s dominant position. The Worcester and Birmingham Canal is some 29 miles long with 58 locks, which begins its course at Diglis Basin, then wending its way north-eastwards towards Birmingham at Gas Street Basin. Construction started in 1792, with the route fully open and complete by 1815. Of course, this waterway no longer carries commercial freight, but it is still a delight for narrowboaters with more leisurely pursuits in mind.

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London Midland Class 172 DMU arrives at Worcester Shrub Hill from Foregate Street, past the impressive GWR bracket signal at the north end of the station

I strolled pleasantly along the towpath back towards the city, before leaving the canal near to Shrub Hill Station, ready to join the eventual scourge of the canals – the railway – for my onward journey that afternoon. Shrub Hill station remains a riot of colour, and in many ways untouched since the Victorians built the line, still employing a wonderful array of Great Western Railway mechanical signalling to control the traffic. This sort of technology is dying off fast as electronic and digital methods in railway technology sweep this venerable old equipment away – so it was well worth pausing here awhile to photograph it. My onward journey took me down past Gloucester onto the welsh side of the Severn Estuary via Lydney, one of the best stretches of coastal railway in England, but that, methinks, is a subject for another day.

Quinessentially Saturday

Widewanderer has landed back in Old England. It is to be an indefinite sojourn in this green and pleasant land, although the world does still offer an open invitation for to explore. For now, the bag is packed with camera (and pack horse booked to carry it!), and out into the verdant landscape of south-western England we go.

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Quintessentially English… A few overs of cricket then tea, then…a pint of the decent stuff.

The cities are their usual bustling selves on a summer Saturday afternoon, not really much of an attraction for me; but only a half hour or so on a train gets one out into the countryside where typically English pursuits are to be found, just bubbling under the surface. Beer, cricket, puttering along the canal in a boat, cyclists, walkers, the polite “Good afternoon, how are you?” rarely to be found in the city, the country railway station complete with resident cat. Not necessarily in that order…

No more than twenty minutes out of the city of Bath on a lamentably crowded train, we’re into the valley of the River Avon. Mobile phone signal fades, and the incessant buzz of train passenger conversation is merely a background as I gaze out of the window at the gently passing landscape.

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A GWR Portsmouth-Cardiff working pauses at Bradford-on-Avon station

Farms, aqueducts and viaducts, weirs along the river, passing country stations at which the trains only call but occasionally, manor houses, ramblers out for a weekend hike (or older folk like myself, strolling in nonchalant fashion)… The robot voice in the train announces Bradford-on-Avon, my destination for the first time in five decades on the planet – I surprise even myself in the fact that I’ve never specifically visited this lovely little spot in rural England.

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Life in the very slow lane…

Bradford can trace its roots back to Roman times, and fragments of evidence of this civilization still exist. However, it found most of its prosperity through the woolen trade in the 17th century, and dozens of mills sprang up along the Avon to produce cloth from the raw material. Transport would be crucial to get the goods away to market: First to arrive was the canal, the original transport link from Reading and the River Thames in the east, to the Port of Bristol in the west. Use of canal declined in the 19th century with the coming of the railway, and it fell into dereliction. But restoration in the latter part of the 20th century created a working waterway once again, though more for the tourist trade than for the movement of goods.

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Two canal residents who seem to know each other…

The Kennet and Avon canal is also home to a vibrant community who make the water their residence, albeit constantly mobile. Meanwhile, the railway carries trains every hour or so in each direction from Bristol & Bath in the west towards Southampton, Portsmouth and Weymouth on the south coast.

 

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No churns, no porters, but the local station cat is still at home in Bradford.

Michael Flanders and Donald Swann sang about the railway, “The Slow Train”, essentially a lament about the impending closure of much of Britain’s rural railway under the Beeching Axe, “…No churns, no porters, no cat on a seat…” Today, though, the station cat at Bradford-on-Avon station was still on the prowl, across the tracks and sitting, majestically, on the edge of the platform. The cat is a cat, of course, and he didn’t stay there for long… He’s too expensive for entertaining the tourists, and he certainly won’t pass political comment about the up-coming EU Referendum!

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Bradford’s 14th century Tithe Barn

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Many micro craft businesses surround the Tithe Barn…

One of the most striking buildings in Bradford is the medieval Tithe Barn. It is a barn of a place in every respect, 168ft long by 33ft wide, built in the 14th century. Originally part of a group of farm buildings, known as a Grange, it was part of the estates of Shaftsbury Abbey until the dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII in 1539, at which point it became simply a farm building, in use as such until as late as 1974. In medieval times, it may well have been used to store “taxes” to the Church, or Tithes, hence its name. In the present age, it is now a tourist attraction, managed by English Heritage – and on this particular Saturday, its vast interior was set up as a theatre for a stage play. Well worth a visit if you are passing through, dear reader – and entry is free. As far as I know. At least that’s what is stated on English Heritage’s website.

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This is the life…

I reckon another visit to the Avon Valley is needed soon. This time, I may well get off the train before Bradford, perhaps at Avoncliffe, where there is a delightful walk along the canal or riverbank towards Bradford Lock and the copious tea shoppes and canalside pubs. Life in the slow lane, folks – and I am quite warming to the idea of one day owning one of those narrow boats, and spending retirement days just puttering along England’s inland waterways, camera (and maybe the occasional pint of beer!) in hand, of course ;-D

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Entering Bradford Lock, eastbound.