The Frost Report (or 'Barge Trek - to coldly stay....')
Crew: Christine & Terry; Christopher; Steve and Tricia. Gary
Our Christmas cruise turned into a "Shackleton" experience, as the second week was spent iced in at Wheaton Aston. But it's very good place to be stuck, with a good pub, water, loo, pump out, fuel and a couple of adequate shops all within reach.
It was certainly a learning experience, I was pleased to discover I didn't get frustrated staying in one place as there was plenty to do. An interesting taste of aspects of the reality of living aboard. I will admit to being rather glad of the hot bath when we got home.
Despite temperatures as low as -12C outside the stove kept the front of the boat warm but its a dirty little so-and-so. The rear of the boat got a little chilly at times so I spent a lot of time trying to fan warm air to the back by whirling a tea towel.
Sunday, 23rd Dec
It all started off uneventfully on when we boarded the boat at Gailey at about 2pm. We decided not to move on that day and spent the afternoon moving in and fitting the new mark II tonneau cover. The yard had thoughtfully added a couple of extra gas bottles making a total of 4 so with that and 2 bags of coal and two more of logs we were confident we would stay warm. We had a little sleet during the evening which set our car alarm off, so it's just as well we were close enough to deal with it or we would have come back to a flat battery and annoyed neighbours
Monday, Christmas Eve
We were pleased to discover we had found the knack of keeping the fire going overnight (thanks to those whose advised on how to do it). So after getting up in a nice warm boat we set off south with the aim of reaching Brewood for the night. The weather was bright and pleasant but I was glad of the protection from the tonneau cover. It's designed so that the rear portion can be rolled up to leave a foot or so to steer from. The cabin doors are left open and warm air is ducted past the helmsman, a great improvement over an open semi-trad cockpit.
Whilst on some of the long straight sections we used a borrowed GPS receiver to get an idea of the relationship between RPM and speed. We found that at a relaxed 1200 RPM we were doing about 3.0 mph. Each 100 RPM above that gave about an additional 0.2 mph. There was a marked reduction in speed going round corners which proved the old sailors adage about the rudder being the best brake on a yacht.
As we passed though Hatherton we pushed aside some bits of light broken ice but didn't see any on the Shroppie even on the embankments. About this time Chris brought me a cup of tea in one of the insulated mugs our friends Liz and Graham had given us for Christmas. They work really well the tea stays hot for a good half hour, but one has to be a little careful when drinking as you get no warning of the temperature as the drink comes out from a hole in the lid.
The only traffic we saw was a boat coming the other way in the narrows by Autherley we pulled over for them and exchanged pleasantries. We reached Brewood late afternoon and took time to explore the village and get a few goodies. We met up with Bob Simmonds on our sister boat Eightsome Reel and had a good natter about boaty things.
As dusk fell we brought the tonneau in so that Chris could finish it off by hemming it and sewing the magnets into pockets - even though a sewing project wasn't quite what she had in mind for Christmas eve (make it Sew). We converted the second cabin into a sewing room by stacking the beds and moving the dining table in. A bit crowded but it worked. I didn't bother to re install it in the dark and we noticed that the back cabin was somewhat colder than during the previous night.
Tuesday, Christmas Day
We had a little rain overnight but the day soon turned bright and sunny. We had a relaxed breakfast and left for a slow slow trundle up to Wheaton Aston at about 9:40. I took it easy and the GPS told me that were averaging 2.5 MPH, but after about an hour it decided that it wasn't going to continue working in the cold.
We moored just below Wheaton Aston lock near the water point (a spot we would get to know quite well). My parents Joyce & Brian and brother Christopher arrived bringing a lunch of cold ham and goodies and we spent the rest of the day relaxing and chatting. We took the obligatory Christmas photo to send round the family. When Joyce & Brian left, Christopher stayed with us.
Wednesday, Boxing day
A cold night with a slight frost which made untying the ropes a bit slow but it quickly brightened to a sunny but rather cold day. We set off north and ran into some light icing (up to about 1 cm thick) on the embankments but the cuttings were clear. We arrived in Gnosall just before lunchtime, we were unsure if the pubs would be doing food so Christine called the Boat to enquire and was told "We are doing a free buffet on all day, come on down". We moored up and wandered in, were made most welcome and tucked in to an impressive spread. We noticed that the locals weren't eating though and started to wonder why but we didn't have any ill effects and the food was very nice so we still don't know.
After lunch we continued north and pretty much had the canal to ourselves, I think we passed one moving boat all day. We stopped at Norbury so we could visit the Junction pub. We had a reasonable meal and enjoyed the barman's humour but decided not to spend all evening there as our books were calling. Christine spent the evening trying to perfect her mulled wine recipe whilst we performed taste tests.
Thursday, 27th Dec
After our relaxed progress it looked like our plan to get to Market Drayton and back to Wheaton Aston for Friday was a bit ambitious, so we made a lunchtime turn at Goldstone Wharf. The only occupied boat we saw all day was moored right on the winding hole. They decided to move on after I had managed to turn despite their thoughtless mooring. I think the propwash may have shaken them a bit. The steam launch Frogmore was moored at the old Cadbury factory near the Shebdon embankment.
The embankment was a very cold and windy place to be so south bound we moored near the Anchor pub at about 3 pm and decided that was enough for the day as a biting NW wind was setting in. We discovered that the pub wasn't opening that nigh so we had a quiet evening in doing some serious reading.
Friday, 28th Dec
During the night the wind got up alarmingly and started to rattle the tonneau in the early hours. Deciding that I would rather deal with things dressed, I got up at 5 am. A quick look outside showed that the cover was loosening though not in any great danger of coming off, but I pulled it tight again and added some extra magnets just to be sure. It didn't seem worth going back to bed so we had an early breakfast and re-secured the mooring lines once it got light.
We set off for Wheaton Aston at about 8:45 and took tuns at the tiller and thawing by the fire. After last night's wild weather we decided to moor in the cutting to the north of the bridge. My parents brought lunch again when they picked Chris up. Once everyone had gone we re-arranged the boat for 4, ready for Steve and Tricia who were joining us that evening. I went up to Turner's garage and bought a bag of coal "just in case" as our consumption rate was far above what I expected. We decided to move into the middle cabin as our guests were later risers than us, and it gave us access to the stove and kettle without disturbing them.
Saturday, 29th Dec
After rather slower start than I would have liked, once everyone was up and we had taken on water it was 10 before we were under way. This meant we would have to push it a bit to get beyond Wolverhampton for the night. This was Steve and Tricia's first time on a canal and they were immediately introduced to lock operation, before we headed south with the hope of reaching Kinver during the weekend. By now the weather was getting rather cold but the warm air from the cabin kept me warm if I sat with my legs under the cover. We went through Wolverhampton squinting into the low sun - going through some bridge holes was guesswork as one couldn't see a thing. It's as well traffic was almost non-existent.
As we approached Compton lock we were delighted to see an oncoming boat just departing. Unfortunately the boat got well and truly jammed when the bow caught on a plate protruding from the lock gate. After a good deal of pushing and shoving we got them free. What with that and the late start it was it was getting a bit dark by the time we arrived at Dimmingsdale lock where we moored in our usual spot on the offside.
Sunday, 30th Dec
We had a dusting of snow in the night and woke to a beautiful scenes so the cameras were busy first thing. Our ambition was to reach the Round Oak for lunch and maybe get to Kinver the next day so we made a fairly prompt start.
As we travelled it started to snow heavily and by the time we got to the Bratch it was about 4" deep. I was getting concerned about having an inexperienced crew on lock sides in the weather but I was warm and comfortable at the helm as the warm air from the cockpit was trapped under the brolly. I decided that we would turn below the Bratch as I didn't want to get caught by ice a long way from base. Despite the conditions we went through the Bratch twice and turned in an hour, helped by leaving the lower gates open for my return.
We decided to get back north beyond the locks before the forecast freeze, so we set a brisk pace, only to hit technical problems. A fault in the wiring harness behind the engine instrument panel knocked out all the instruments and charging. I grovelled round in the wiring while Chris or Steve steered, and after a bit of fiddling it all worked again. I didn't find the fault so I was worried about a recurrence (it didn't happen). Now it was our turn to get stuck at Compton lock, this time it was apiece of wood jammed behind the gate. The slippery ground made clearing it rather tricky and we were unable to retrieve it so I expect following boats may have had similar difficulties
We believed (foolishly) in the weather forecast which predicted a couple of cold nights then warming up. So we decided to head for Wheaton Aston rather than Gailey, to drop Steve & Tricia back at their car. We spent the night among the hire boats at Autherley, and despite the area's reputation we were not disturbed. Maybe we can thank PC Winter and Inspector Frost.
Monday, 31st Dec
It was really cold overnight and we woke to a heavy frost but the canal was still liquid and steaming (we didn't know about the sewage works outlet then). An absolutely delightful scene with the rising sun slanting through the mist and I got some very nice pictures. Casting off was a challenge as the ropes had frozen solidand were like iron bars that stayed frozen in strange shapes all day. Tricia made a snow boy mascot on the fore deck that lasted several days and got a lot of comments.
We hit ice at the start of the embankment by bridge 4 - just a light covering at first but it soon got thicker, perhaps up to an inch. Steve was fascinated by the progress through the ice, and got out his video camera to capture the sound as well as the sight. We pulled in at Brewood for lunch and respite hoping the bright sun would melt the ice, butI noticed that the broken ice was refreezing.
We took off to take advantage of the wake of an oncoming boat and made a slow passage to Wheaton Aston where we again moored back at our favourite spot near the water point. We went for an early meal at the Hartley Arms to avoid the crowds and enjoyed good quality food at a reasonable price which was served promptly, then settled down for a pleasant evening on the boat. We didn't bother seeing the new year in as it had been a long day.
Tuesday, New Years Day
It was bitterly cold over night, and our guests were rather reluctant to climb out from under their 3 duvets. But once we fired up the heating and I got the stove to cherry red they appeared. I noticed the boat wasn't rocking as we moved about, and looking out I could see we were frozen in fast. One of our neighbours registered -12 C !. The forecast was still for a couple of cold days then a thaw so we were not concerned, after all we have all we needed locally.
Our guests left mid morning and we reconfigured the boat once again this time for just the two of us. After taking some photographs we settled down for a good quiet read.
Wednesday, 2nd Jan
Still frozen in after another cold night. The promised thaw had been put off another day, but we still hoped to leave before the weekend. We noticed that the Phurnacite we had been using was more difficult to control and keep going through the night than the Blaze coal we got from the boatyard. Decided to get a taxi to fetch the car which was only 5 miles away by road but might as well be on the moon by water. Also picked up another two bags of Blaze smokeless fuel and some hose fittings.
We were getting low on water so together with Ken from Fortuitous, Alan from Serenade and the folks on Shelean we coupled all our hoses together and filled the tanks of all four boats. By the time we did the furthest boat the hose was probably a couple of hundred feet long. We noticed a distinct drop in flow at the end as the hose started to freeze.
Thursday, 3rd Jan
No sign of the promised thaw so we went scavenging for firewood along the towpath. This is when I discovered one can't cut frozen wood. I ended up with it propped over the stove chimney to thaw it out. We started to get to know the other boaters and soon made friends and a nice little community was developing.
Dave on Lle Happus decided to move a couple of boat lengths nearer the water point and had quite a fight to do even that as the ice got much thicker in a very short distance. I took advantage of his ice clearing and moved our boat adjacent to the pumpout station where we discovered the joys of a DIY pump out. We were pleased to discover there is nothing to it really - if there were more of these places about we would prefer it to messing about with cassettes.
Friday, 4th Jan
Still cold and frosty, I had a poke at the ice and found one piece 3" thick and that was nowhere near the middle. It was apparent that were not going to get out of there for the weekend and we needed to be back at work on the 7th. Our fellow syndicate members came to our rescue and Gary agreed to take over from us on Sunday.
Saturday, 5th Jan
At last it started to thaw, then rain, this made the towpath was really treacherous with water on top of ice. The area round the boat had melted completely but it was still thick just a couple of boat lengths away. I had agreed to turn the boat ready for Gary the next day, but the winding hole was still ice bound, albeit with a covering of water which fooled the ducks. We did it with lot of banging and crashing plus a lot of help from our friends Dave, Ken, Sarah and Paul all pulling the stern round, breaking and moving ice out of the way. Chris was clearing ice at the front while I made a lot of noise and stirred the water up on the back and tried to pole us round.
At one point the bow of the boat was on top of the ice, then there was an almighty bang and we settled on an even keel. Chris measured one fragment at 4" thick and we believe the ice was thicker in undisturbed parts of the canal. This is NOT something I will attempt again. After an hour we had turned and were back at the mooring at least facing the right way. We spent the evening with the usual pre departure chores and packing, and had another nice meal at the Hartley Arms. One nice feature of this place is they do food all day so we had our roast dinner at 4:45.
Sunday, 6th Jan
The thaw continued but the ice was still pretty thick, I had a poke at it above the lock and it looked like a couple of inches near the bank. Gary arrived at 9:30 and decided to make an attempt at getting to Gailey. We started down the foggy motorway home. That evening Gary phoned to tell us that he had given up and hour and 200 yards beyond the lock, and that he was staying on the boat which was moored in a small group of other stranded boats.
Wednesday, 9th Jan
Gary finally made it back to Gailey. He encountered quite a bit of ice between Wheaton Aston and Brewood but it was clear south of there all the way to Autherley junction. After turning north on the Staffs and Worcs the canal was ice free to just north of Coven where it started again and lasted all the way to Gailey. Our thanks to Gary for taking Max home for us