Our Narrowboat Adventure on the Thames Ring
Monday, September 3rd: What is Sandy and Black, and what happens at Banbury Cross? Up early, a light snack, as we are heading to a canal-side pig farm which we hear has a good breakfast. We put off at 9:30 expecting breakfast at 10:30. We were delayed, but a pleasant delay. We found queues at the various locks and met interesting people who shared valuable information. Some of these locks were stiff to handle, we were able to help one and other. We lean against the barrier and push, walking backward. It’s good to keep in mind that the people who help you, or whom you help are important. You’ll see them again.
We traversed another diamond lock, and another deep lock, then we notice that the water is growing shallower. This is a result of the long, dry summer. For the first time, we need to stay in the middle of the canal. The sides are too shallow. We pass other boats with care and closely. Hence the “contact sport” comments.
We intended to moor at Twyford Warf but decide that the low water conditions make that undesirable. We motor slowly toward the town of Banbury. Something interesting: at the King’s Sutton lock we see across the fields to starboard the piercing spire of the ancient church at King’s Sutton village. We need to figure out how to get there.
Brunch at a Canal Side Farm
We moor the boat at The Pig Farm. The farm is only two acres, situated high above the canal. They offer several adjacent moorings. In this little space they raise as many as 80 members of a heritage breed. These are called Oxford Sandy and Blacks.
This is one of the oldest pig breeds in the country. Almost extinct at least twice they are now protected by an organization. They are rich brown color with black spots. They raise them in small paddocks, on grass, in small, sturdy houses. The farmer moves the pig around, allowing the grass to grow.
There are ducks milling around a pair of sleeping lurchers. The big dogs sleep in the sun, ignoring the ducks. We shopped at a small store offering, meat, eggs, some vegetables and a few convenience foods. We sit at a table on the hill overlooking the canal and have brunch at noon. We order one full English breakfast and an egg and bacon sandwich. The fresh farm eggs have huge bright golden yolks. Toto, we’re not at Costco anymore!
Down the hill they are setting up a bar on wheels for the late day crowd. We need a little nap. With curtains drawn we take 30 minutes. Boaters we know sail by, later on she tells me, “we said the Americans are having a kip”. We travel on and later find a shady moorage at what seems to be an industrial park a short walk from the center of the ancient Market Town of Banbury.
A neighboring boater helps us tie up. A petroleum engineer, he lives on his boat. When it’s time to meet a customer he puts on his suit and takes the nearest train to London. This is a longer term mooring. We could stay two weeks if we wanted.
Thursday September 4th. Again, up early. We make coffee in the French press. Away from the convenience of our Nespresso machine our skills are improving. The man cooking at Kizzies, the little restaurant at the Lower Heyford wharf was right. It sits 1.5 minutes then pour.
A quick breakfast, toast, good butter, local marmalade. I don’t think we can go back to standard American butter again. We want to try the food in Banbury, including the ancient Reindeer Inn. We’ll want a Banbury Cake too. All I know about Banbury I learned in a nursery rhyme.
We will be looking for opportunities to see Broughton Castle. This is a big fortified house with a moat. It sounds interesting but it might not work. It’s only opened for two afternoon’s a week. We are also keen to see Upton House. This is a restored country house in hunt country which boasts a serious art collection. We think this one is reachable by bus from Banbury.
Near Banbury, an Iron Age settlement has been found. The town itself was founded by the Saxons in the fifth century. In this town, today, a walk along the canal tow path will take you anywhere you need to go. We see the train and bus stations, monuments are nearby.
In the heart of things, canal side, is a huge, bland shopping mall. It encircles the small and famous Tooley’s Boatyard. The mall is an anachronism but oddly Tooley’s is not. Founded in 1778, it is one of the oldest working dry docks on the Inland Waterway system.
If your needs are nautical this is the place. You can repair your boat, and get traditional artwork painted on anything you want. You can take a Royal Yachting Association boating course or rent a narrowboat for the day. If you are willing to work hard enough you can take a course in Blacksmithing at a 200 year old forge.
Indolent ourselves, we settle for a coffee and a Banbury cake. It is a sweet flat oval with raisins and currants. It’s like a cookie. We don’t know it’s origin but it’s clearly a nice snack for a medieval pilgrim to take along.
Canal side meetings are fun. Here is a woman who with her husband, has been continuously cruising for 7 years. (Continuous cruisers own a boat but not a permanent mooring. Their license requires that they make a good faith effort to keep navigating.) Their son is coming home from Australia for a visit. They like Banbury for shopping, entertainment and to see the dentist. They’ll bring their son to see the town. Hope he likes it.
Another couple are longtime European river cruisers. It’s their first English canal trip. They are having fun, we know now that we want to take boat trips in other countries.
Like most villages and towns we visit, people here do like a container garden. There are little traffic circles filled with metal forms which take multiple baskets and create tiny groves of geranium trees between the cars. We walk by good looking terraces of Georgian houses but their front gardens pale by village standards. Rocked patios, bare walls, really!
The Reindeer Pub
Here is the Reindeer Pub. Founded in the 15th century it was originally a house and a cottage. It’s actually the Reign Deer, from the era of the English Civil War. The name is a play on the Royalist crowd who frequented it. There was also a big Puritan contingent including some of the owners. You can guess how this worked out. Oliver Cromwell held trials in the rear dining room. That could spoil your lunch.
Our waitress was a young New Zealander who became enamored with British history. We see this a lot at historic sites. People become addicted to their environments. She showed us around the pub and dared us to find the secret hiding spot. We failed!
Our consolation was real ale and fried fish in a sunny window nook. Wandering the town, we found St Mary The Virgin. It’s a golden stone, Romanesque building with columns. It’s locked up tight. Times are hard. They can do Sunday Masses, but they make ends meet by subletting to a Reformed Church.
So a few streets away, in another time, the residents were at war over religious expression (and power of course), here, they have worked out a time share!
Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross
To see a fiyne lady ride on a white horseNursery Rhyme
The Banbury Cross is in the middle of a traffic circle. Banbury once had three crosses which were destroyed by the Puritan side during the Civil War. The cross standing today dates to 1859, it commemorates the marriage of Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter.
There is a nearby bronze statue of the fine lady. It’s of modern origin. The Fiyne lady is said to be a member of the Fiennes family and an ancestor of the owners of Broughton Castle. She might be as close as we get to Broughton Castle. The nursery rhyme has been recited to English speaking children since about 1760.
We checked in at the bus station. Tomorrow morning we can take a 20 minute bus ride to see Upton House a restored country house with a famous art collection. It is located in the Cotswold countryside near to the first battle of the English Civil War and was given to the National Trust by the owners of the Shell Oil Company.
12 days aboard, life on the water
As today ends we have been 12 days on the boat. Of the 12 days we spent 5 moored and sightseeing. So, in 7 days of traveling we covered 27 miles. We could have walked faster! There is a lot of freedom on the boats. You can have leisurely days or busy days but you will not have any days of fast forward motion.
Flora and Fauna
The canals are beautiful. Without the engine you could forget what century you are in. The reeds are on one side, on the other the willows droop over the boat. You’re right, it’ s like being ” Ratty” in the Wind in The Willows. We slid by St Edward’s School, where Kenneth Grahame, it’s author, was a student.
Buddelia (Butterfly Bush) grows in every crevice and hangs down from the bank side. Blackberries are rampant. People lean down from their bicycles and up from the boats and pick them without needing to stop. The roses are done but the red hips are everywhere. There is a vine with loose petioles of fragrant white flowers. We’re told it’s a weed. If so we’d like some. The morning glories are white and pop through the other plants. So far the weather is warm and sunny. The British revel in their summer clothing. Some mornings we Floridians wear our fleece vests. The locals are in sundresses and t shirts.
There are loads of red berries. The hollies I recognize. We are not sure about the other varieties. There is a yellow fruit with the size and texture of a yellow cherry tomato. Beats us!
We do worry about the loss of pollinators. Here it doesn’t seem like a problem. Bees and butterflies abound. Lots of wildlife; ducks, ducks, ducks, and swans. There are flocks of geese. We feed them oatmeal from the bag, spot one and you have 12. Early in the morning, they cruise the boats, just in case.
We are on the lookout for the water vole (Ratty from Wind in the Willows). They are almost extinct. North American minks have been released from their ranches. The mink are an invasive species here, they have no natural predators and have killed off the vole.
The Great Blue Heron is a frequent neighbor. Like the ones we have on our backyard pond they stand silently until we get too close, then they fly off with a loud cranky noise. Barn Owls are around, we are dying to spot a bright blue Kingfisher, this bird is an icon of canal life. The Canal and RiverTrust has a poet laureate, she wrote about how quick he is. He’s too quick for us.
Tomorrow is a new day, anything can happen, “Anything Goes”.
This is some information on visiting the town of Banbury