I have been steering trip boats for the last year for the IWA events at Oxford Open doors and Banbury Canal Day since I gained my Helmsman’s Certificate last year, so just had to volunteer for Lower Heyford Fun Weekend on the Oxford canal, with an invitation from Peter Darch to bed down on his boat ‘The Great Escape’ for a couple of nights. I arrived on the Friday, having spent one night on board ‘Stronghold’ at Addlestone, which is a convenient ‘stepping stone’ for trips to the Midlands and beyond. After assisting Peter on Friday afternoon with a few event tasks.We adjourned with Frank, a WRG (Waterways Recovery Group) member to ‘The Bell’ for victuals. It is a pub I have been to before on my travels up and down the Oxford, with a good choice of ales and very good food in adequate proportions. As good as the pub was, the next experience was not up to the same standard and that was trying to sleep with the main train line about 50ft away and all the extraneous noises that emanate from blokes who have just returned from the pub – yours truly included. I must have counted 30 to 40 trains passing throughout the night; the rest I will leave to your imagination!
Oxfordshire Narrowboats Base
Dayboats moored four abreast with "Muddy Waters" on the inside.
The following day dawned with sunshine and it was warmer outside the boat than in. We did a few more jobs that needed doing around the boatyard and I met up with people who I had not seen since October at Banbury Canal Day. My shift as helmsman came round in the afternoon and once again I was in charge of one of Oxfordshire Narrowboats’ Day Boats. These are about 35ft long with an open foredeck with seats and a small cabin with table, chairs, cooker and toilet. Steering a day boat is totally different to steering a longer boat as they are very skittish and have very little power to accelerate and even less power to stop or reverse. Some of us discussed this and decided that they were built that way to control the speed of the boat by using a small propeller in the hands of inexperienced hirers, thus limiting the forward speed so as not to cause wash on the banks or disturb moored boats. This is acceptable in the present situation, as we are generally passing moored boats on the ½ hour trip, but stopping or reversing means revving the engine so fast that the boat is vibrating out of all proportion to its speed. The other problem is that the boat is bow heavy with all the passengers at that end, making the propeller less effective. Having a boat with an Axiom propeller, as I have, means all this revving of engines comes a bit of a surprise when winding the boat and is easy to misjudge how close to the bank the bow is. However, on this trip, I realised that I could bend down and look through the cabin to see where the bow was in relation to the bank, thus having better control of the winding operation.
One of two day boats coming in to the mooring with Steve Parker as bowman and David Beaumont steering.
As on other occasions, I dressed the part of the historical (or should that be hysterical?) boater in cords, spider belt, embroidered shirt, red neckerchief, waistcoat, black boots and bowler hat, despite the fact that it should have been a trilby hat on the Oxford canal. The bowler hat is the traditional wear of the Grand Union boater, but I think the bowler is more generally appreciated and recognised by the public, so I wear one.
In the evening, we repaired to The Bell again for our evening meal, but with different companions, David and Barby, who live at Lower Heyford and have a boat, “Kings Vanquish”, moored at the bottom of their garden. At the end of the evening, they invited me to moor alongside at any time when I was next there, which would be extremely convenient if I needed to go home or stay for a longer period, as the train station is right there as well. That is what I like about the boating community, they are all out to help one another. It’s a pity the rest of the world can’t get on so well!
Interior view of the day boat.
Sunday dawned just like the previous day with sunshine and high cloud. We had all slept better as there were only four trains that passed before midnight, then there were no more. The day was similar to Saturday and I was out of a job until 1pm, but I was on call at the boarding point with a newspaper, but little chance to read it as boats were coming and going, so I stepped in when no one else was available to help trippers on and off the boats, as well as chatting to other IWA members who were crewing. My shift ended up in the rain again, but I was well prepared with waterproofs. On one occasion Mary Heritage recalled the boat back to the mooring twice to take on extra passengers, just as I had left. I felt that it was just like being in a boat handling competition.
A thoroughly enjoyable weekend and I have to thank Peter Darch for his company and hospitality on board “The Great Escape”and to his wife Anne for her endeavours in achieving the impossible on my behalf.
It did rain at the close of the show.