Blue Otter

26 February 2023

Blue Otter Narrowboat

I briefly thought about starting a blog for the boat, but on reflection I’m never any good at separating concerns and I’d rather have everything in one place. So let’s start at the beginning… with our first experience of narrowboating on the Blue Otter in April 2022.

I’m not really bothered much about celebrating birthdays but I had a few ideas for my 50th birthday, and none of them were likely to happen in the two years into a pandemic with two out of three family members needing passport renewals. Casting about for something novel to do without leaving the country or getting into contact with too many people Darren came up with the idea of hiring a narrowboat on the canal. It was something we’d mentioned a few times over the years but never committed to. Now it seemed like a great plan, and much cheaper than the posh holidays I’d had in mind. (In the long run that did not turn out to be the case!)

Darren looked for something fancier than your average narrowboat for hire, a lot of them are seemed very basic and made to squeeze hoards of people into rather than house three of us comfortably, and he found the Blue Otter at Wootton Wawen on the Stratford Canal. We booked it for five days during the Easter holidays, just after my birthday. Before we went the owners sent us links to the Canal & River Trust’s Boater’s Handbook DVD and we all watched through it, wondering if we’d remember how to steer the boat or work a lock when we came to the real thing. I confess that I got rather worried about it beforehand when I read something about the Stratford Canal not being a good canal for newbies because of how many locks there were on it.

Day 1

We turned up at Hill Farm Marina, which was much posher than I’d expected with a lovely restaurant and coffee shop, and were met by Dominic who was going to show us the ropes. We loaded all our supplies on to the boat and set off. Dominic explained how the steering worked and I took over… and took us straight into a hedge! Miranda then had a go and did a much better job! I kind of got the hang of it and piloted us into our first lock. Darren and Miranda worked us through the gates, with help from Dominic and various bystanders (known as “gongoozlers” on the canal, great word!) and once we were out the other side we were soon passing over the Edstone Aquaduct with Miranda at the tiller.

Edstone Aquaduct Dominic left us soon after that, having decided we’d more or less got the hang of it, or perhaps he just has the boat well insured! When we got to the next winding hole we turned the boat round with a lot more back and forth and bargepoling than the people on the video we’d watched but there was no one about to laugh at us and though we got a bit stuck we pushed ourselves off and the end result was that we were heading back the way we came. Back over the aquaduct - I steered this time, or bounced us from side to side of the channel anyway - and back through the lock we’d come through earlier. We were all on our own by now and managed to get through ok. It had been mid-afternoon before we set off and when we got back just past the marina, and near to the pub, we decided we’d not push our luck and moored up for our first night aboard.

  • 📍From Hill Farm Marina
  • ↗️Via Edstone Winding Hole
  • ⚓️To Bridge 54, Wootton Wawen
  • 🗺3 miles 5 furlongs
  • 🔒2 locks
  • 🍻The Navigation Inn, Wootton Wawen

Day 2

First Mooring

We started the morning with a coffee at Hill Farm Marina since it was within walking distance of the boat, and this was a holiday about going slow, we weren’t going far and were in no hurry. Then set off northbound up the South Stratford Canal. We went through eight locks on our first full day of boating and we went very slowly, taking our time. At some point we pulled over and moored up for lunch. I can’t remember too much, I was still pretty nervous, though needlessly, we were managing fine. Darren worked the locks and I steered the boat

Moored at the Fleur-de-Lys

What I haven’t forgotten though was how glorious it was to moor up across from the beer garden of the Fleur-de-Lys pub in Lowsonford. It was Good Friday, and perfect evening sunlight, and we stopped the boat looking like we knew what we were doing. It was completely idyllic. Well, until we realised that there was going to be outdoor karaoke at the pub anyway! It all worked out, the music didn’t go on too late and we enjoyed a drink in the beer garden ourselves.

  • 📍From Bridge 54, Wootton Wawen
  • ⚓️To Fleur-de-Lys, Lowsonford
  • 🗺4 miles 3 furlongs
  • 🔒8 locks
  • 🍻Fleur-de-Lys, Lowsonford

Looking back from the beer garden

Day 3

As we only had the boat for five days we needed to decide when to turn back round and head back to base. It made sense to presume that we’d do the return leg of the trip faster than the outbound leg so we kept going through our third day. We worked our way through 9 locks on the way to Kingswood junction where the Stratford Canal joins the Grand Union Canal.

Into the lock

We struggled with one lock just before the junction. The lower gates wouldn’t open fully and we couldn’t squeeze the boat in. Miranda was the one on board steering and she managed to reverse out only to get stuck on the far side of the canal from us on the towpath. She eventually rocked the boat backwards and forwards enough to get moving and some other boaters came to help us get the boat back away from the lock. We waited for another boat to come down the lock and raised the fenders on the boat and went in for another try. This time we got through and to Kingswood where we turned onto the southbound Grand Union.

After stopping for a wander to a convenience store in Kingswood where we picked up a couple of things we were missing and had ice creams too, we carried on to Turner’s Green where we stopped for our third night. We got some rather nice pizza at the Tom O’The Wood pub.

  • 📍From Fleur-de-Lys, Lowsonford
  • ⚓️To Turner’s Green Bridge, No 63
  • 🗺3 miles
  • 🔒9 locks
  • 🍻🍕Tom O’The Wood, Turner’s Green

Day 4

Lying in bed on the Sunday morning I suddenly realised that I’d misread a symbol on the canal map. What I’d thought was a winding hole - somewhere you can turn the boat around - was actually the entrance to a tunnel. There wasn’t a winding hole until some way after the tunnel. So we had no choice but to go through the tunnel and back again, making today’s journey rather longer than planned. So although the day’s journey was the previous day in reverse it was more than 3 times as long.

I got us moving as soon as Darren was up as I was rather worried about the amount of time it was going to take. Approaching the tunnel was rather scary! Shrewley Tunnel is technically wide enough for two narrowboats to pass but I really wouldn’t have wanted to meet anything coming. It’s 396m long but also dead straight so you can see all the way through. It looked clear as we approached so I just went straight ahead into it and slowly passed through trying to keep the boat straight and not bash into the walls, which was harder than it sounds like it ought to be. As soon as we were in the tunnel I wished that I’d thought to put my raincoat on! The tunnel roof was dripping on me all the time. I was very relieved to come out the other end and be safely through!

Shrewley Tunnel

All we needed to do now was turn around and go back and do it again!

There are a couple of videos on Flickr of our passage through the tunnel, taken by Darren from the bow.

We turned the boat around really well at the winding hole about a mile after the tunnel. I got a shout of “Good Job!” from a lady walking on the towpath, which I was delighted with as it was only the second time I’d done it.

Second time through the tunnel and I remembered to put my raincoat on so I got a bit less wet this time. There was a lot more canal traffic around by this point in the day. I managed to get through the tunnel a couple of minutes behind another boat, and then panicked briefly thinking I’d misread the situation and worried it was coming towards us, but all was fine and the boat I was following was definitely going in the same direction as us.

From now on we were going back the way we came. The only tricky bit was negotiating the turning at Kingswood Junction from the other direction. I managed to get myself on the wrong side of the canal approaching the turn with an oncoming boat coming towards me but it all worked out and the other crew were nice about it.

Kingswood Junction

Back down the locks we’d come up the day before and we were back at the Fleur-de-Lys again for another evening. This time we moored up a bit further away from the beer garden, although it was quieter on a Sunday evening anyway.

  • 📍From Turner’s Green Bridge, No 63
  • ↗️Via Hatton Winding Hole
  • ⚓️To Fleur-de-Lys, Lowsonford
  • 🗺10 miles 3 furlongs
  • 🔒9 locks
  • ⚫️1 tunnel, twice
  • 🍻Fleur-de-Lys, Lowsonford

Day 5

Last Evening Aboard

The last full day of our holiday saw us reversing the second day to get back to near the marina where we’d started. This seemed like a very short day after the one before! We had a much later start with a coffee at the Fleur-de-Lys in the morning. Although it was Easter Monday the canal was noticeably quieter than it had been earlier in the weekend.

At this point we very much felt we’d got the hang of handling the boat and the locks and would have been happy to have stayed longer. We got the boat back to Bridge 54 on the South Stratford canal ready to hand it back the next morning.

  • 📍From Fleur-de-Lys, Lowsonford
  • ⚓️To Wootton Wawen Footbridge No 54
  • 🗺4 miles 3 furlongs
  • 🔒8 locks
  • 🍻The Navigation Inn, Wootton Wawen

Day 6

Bucket Lock Cottage

Dominic and Charlotte from Blue Otter Boats turned up bright and early to pilot the boat back into the marina. We unloaded all our gear and went for an end of holiday breakfast at The View restaurant at Hill Farm Marina before driving back home.

It had been a very enjoyable holiday. Not everything went to plan and we had a few worries and things to figure out but we’d learnt new skills, got away from our everyday lives, and enjoyed the relaxed pace of life on the canal.

I can’t remember now exactly when the thought “Hey, that was fun, why don’t we buy our own narrowboat?” came up but it was pretty quickly! And that’s a story for another day.

  • 📍To/From Hill Farm Marina
  • ↗️Via Hatton Winding Hole
  • 🗺22 miles 6 furlongs
  • ⚫️1 tunnel, twice
  • 🔒34 locks (17, both up and down)
  • 🚤South Stratford & Grand Union Canals