The Thames Ring: Retrospective

[Apologies for a larger than usual post but I this information would be better kept together.]

We recently completed a narrow boat trip around the so-called Thames Ring (a.k.a. the Grand Ring or Southern Ring), a circular route comprised of the Grand Union Canal, Oxford Canal and River Thames. In case there are those out there contemplating the trip, I thought it worth documenting our experiences and thoughts.

Two American friends were the driving force behind our trip. We had first joined forces with them on a 1-week narrow boat rental 15 years ago. On that occasion, renting our boat from Wyvern Shipping in Leighton Buzzard, we did a standard there-an-back trip up to Braunston Junction. It was during that trip that our American friends learned of the Thames Ring route and put it on their list of things to do. 15 years on, here we were helping them achieve their goal. The Wyvern Shipping boats have an enviable reputation as being some of the best presented boats on the canal system. Our first experience was good so once again we rented from Wyvern Shipping.

It is said that the Thames Ring can be done in two weeks. The folks at Wyvern, however, explained that whilst two weeks might be possible, all you’d do is cruise for 8-9 hours a day with no time to stop and play tourist; they suggested a 2½ week rental, which is what we booked.

Direction

Our first question was which direction to go in, clockwise or anticlockwise? Carol had found a published itinerary that did take two weeks and went round clockwise. We found a couple of other suggestions to go clockwise, the main reason that I’ve found being that:

on the Thames part of the route you are travelling away from Brentford lock and up to the manned lock at Teddington before continuing on your way – http://www.waterwaysholidays.com

We, of course, ignored this apparently favoured direction by going anticlockwise. We had two original main reasons for this thought, to which I have subsequently added a third:

  1. we’d be travelling with the flow of the River Thames, potentially making better progress;
  2. it seemed to offer a better bail-out plan should we look like not making it – we could turn around before Oxford and retrace our outbound steps;
  3. we now know that there are several locks on the lower part of the Grand Union Canal which are required to be “left empty”, meaning that they are set in your favour when travelling up that section of the canal.

I asked the folks at Wyvern Shipping and they didn’t think I was being a silly-billy so we set off anticlockwise.

En route, we did speak to a couple of more experienced boaters who mentioned the Thames occasionally flowing fast after heavy rains and their boat being rather swept along. That might make maintaining control more difficult going downstream. Conversely, I’d have thought that going upstream could become decidedly slow, narrow boats being flat out at about 5-6 mph. I suspect heavy rains are not welcome in either direction.

Gauging Progress

#2 above leads on to an interesting bit of trickiness.

Gauging progress on a there-and-back trip is relatively easy: travel out for half the time, turn round (having selected a suitable winding point), then travel back for the second half of the time. Since canals basically do not flow, travel time in both directions should be essentially equal.

This is not so on a circular route. Narrow boat travel time results from a mixture of cruising speed and numbers of locks to be negotiated. There are a widely varying number of locks strewn along different sections of the route. The southern section of the Grand Union Canal between Leighton Buzzard and the River Thames is particularly rich in locks. Half way round is not a question of distance but time. Gauging that with any degree of comfort almost requires that you know how long sections will take before you’ve done them.

Since we’d seen published information suggesting typical travel time to Oxford from Leighton Buzzard, we estimated that we’d need to be through Oxford and onto the Thames at the end of our first week, i.e. on Friday (our rental being from Saturday). Were we to miss that target, we could spin around and cruise back.

Making Progress

We have heard an old narrow boat adage along the lines of “4 miles an hour, 4 locks an hour”. If that were ever true, I don’t think it can be relied upon now. The canal system is much busier than it was 15 years ago – there are a lot more boats on the system. The increased number of boats has two effects.

  1. There is a much greater chance than there used to be that you will have to wait to get through a lock, either waiting behind other boats travelling in the same direction as you, or waiting for boats coming in the opposite direction to clear a lock.
  2. There are many more moored boats that you have to pass, technically at tick over speed, so that you very rarely go even as fast as walking pace (we proved this by walking ahead of our boat, and leaving it behind, on a number of occasions), let alone 4 mph.

I’d suggest that the best you could confidently expect to achieve now is more like “3 miles an hour, 3 locks an hour”.

The Tidal Thames

This is where yours truly got a little confused, Dumbo that I am. My confusion was partly caused by not looking at a map but also by nomenclature.

Completing the Thames Ring requires you to travel on a tidal section of the River Thames between locks at Brentford and Teddington. There are actually three locks of different sizes at Teddington, “Old Lock” being used by narrow boats and normal river traffic. Unfortunately, the lock at Brentford is called “Thames Lock”, even though it is on the GUC, not on the Thames. I suppose it is essentially the gateway to/from the Thames. I had been mixing up Thames Lock with Teddington Lock and getting very confused. Most folks will not make the same mistake, I’m sure. 😉

The journey between Teddington and Brentford (Thames Lock) takes about an hour to an hour and a half. Thames Lock at Brentford is the limiting factor because it is only open/manned at limited times of the day depending upon the timing of high tide. One is advised/instructed to phone ahead to the lockkeeper, check on the timing of high tide on the relevant day, and tell them you are coming.

I would certainly advise trying to estimate your date for this section of the trip before setting out.  I might even advise doing so before making your booking and timing your booking for a favourable tide time. Why? Well, it’s a very personal opinion but IMHO the bottom section of the GUC sucks – it has a mixture of particularly unappealing industrial sections and a water surface that is frequently strewn with floating garbage and filmed with oil. Thus, I personally wouldn’t want to have to moor there overnight. Those less fussy will not have this restriction.

We lucked out; with little planning at all, we ended up at Teddington for an 8:30 AM high tide enabling us to re-enter the GUC and make sufficient progress northwards to clear the ugly section. Actually, we made it through Uxbridge to Denham.

Expect the Unexpected

It’s advisable to check for any planned maintenance work on your chosen route before setting out – you can easily lose a day because a lock and pound have been drained to replace the lock gates. You can check on the Canal & River Trust website (used to be the British Waterways Board) , though quite why the “Notices” page is so lamentably difficult to find is completely beyond me.

You still need to expect the unexpected and have time in hand to allow for it. We were delayed by a drained lock and pound for some emergency, unplanned maintenance on lock gates near Braunston. The maintenance consisted of hitting a large nail with a large hammer to stop the large nail protruding and possibly damaging someone’s large boat. The thumping was followed by scraping water plants off the now exposed lock gates. Fortunately, we were delayed only by an hour or so.

Further excitement occurred at Teddington Locks. Having arrived for our favourable 8:30 AM tide, we were almost not allowed through because the Thames Lock lockkeeper (at Brentford, remember) had called in sick. Fortunately a replacement lockkeeper was found in time and we did get through but we could have lost a whole day waiting for the next morning’s high tide (which would have been an hour later, of course).

We’d have suffered a worse delay had we tried to get through Teddington Locks a few days earlier. A poor young girl had been reported missing (Alice Gross, if you remember) and the boys in blue had closed the Hanwell flight of locks on the GUC as part of their search. Further along our journey, we did meet another boat that had been held up for two days part way down the Hanwell flight while the search was being carried out. A delay such as that can really screw up a schedule.

Duration

With the River Thames being a whole new experience for us all, and with the issue of the tidal section at the end of it for our anticlockwise route, I never became confident about completing our journey in time until we were once again on the GUC. That’s a personal failing, though – Mr. Worrier, I guess. It meant that we basically went for it with little in the way of pause, until we were back on the GUC,  some three-quarters of the way around the circuit. The result was that we did ultimately complete the Thames Ring in two weeks, which I originally thought wasn’t going to be possible at all. It did prove to be possible but it was not what I’d call a relaxing experience.

Were we to do it again, how long would I take in the light of experience, though? In hindsight, our 2½-week rental would have allowed for, say, two days of tourism with a further day contingency for the unexpected (see above). That still isn’t very much relaxation. I’d now recommend three weeks for a more enjoyable, interesting break. I talked to other boaters en route who expressed a similar opinion.

Where to Pause?

The increased boating traffic is making stopping at some locations very difficult. Braunston would potentially be of interest but finding a free mooring spot was nigh on impossible. The Paddington Arm of the GUC was described to me as “wall to wall boats”, not that we did the Paddington Arm but many places are now similarly crowded. Milton Keynes is very busy, not really touristy and generally provides more or less constant road traffic noise. On the Oxford Canal, Banbury seems to have completely wasted its waterfront development by giving it over largely to the arse-end of shops in a shopping centre. Enough of where not to stop, where would I stop? (Clearly, this choice is very personal.)

  • On the GUC, Stoke Bruerne is attractive and has its canal museum together with some eateries but, again, it’s busy and mooring could prove difficult … unless you moor below some of the locks on the south and walk in.
  • Oxford would provide a lot of interest with colleges and the like, though also might prove difficult to find moorings.
  • Abingdon on the River Thames is a very pleasant town with an attractive waterfront providing very good free moorings, and we would certainly have enjoyed a relaxing day doing very little other than shopping and feeding ducks there.
  • Henley on Thames is another attractive stopping place on the Thames and I could have happily paid the £9 mooring fee for a day there.
  • Windsor obviously has plenty for tourism and there are some pleasant enough moorings there, though they were crowded until early evening. We were there at a weekend so that situation may be different during the week.
  • On the bottom of the GUC, there is little worthy of stopping south of Watford, where there are pleasant moorings as the canal runs through Cassiobury Park, which could provide some R&R.
  • Berkamsted is also a pleasant town on the GUC and could have provided a day’s diversion, even though we are essentially locals.

Route Map

Posted in Thames Ring, 2014

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