Spare Wars Episode IV

… in a galaxy far, far away …

It must be in a galaxy far, far away because the Stormtroopers of the evil empire of Jaguar Land Rover are clearly on a different planet from me.

OK, in Episode III [Ed: which, of course, hasn’t been written yet] we left customer Skywalker and the empire’s Mr. Stormtrooper in what appeared to be an infinite loop of contact:

  1. talk to Land Rover dealers
  2. talk to Jaguar Land Rover
  3. go to #1

This could go on for centuries.

Episode IV began very shortly after writing Episode III [Ed: ah, so time travel really is possible] when, having explained to Mr. Stormtrooper that phone contact with him would not be possible for a while, another holographic message from him arrived by Google droid. However, before I report its content, I must quote a section of my original email to I wrote:

On certain 180PS models there is an expensive option of a Heavy Duty Towing kit (<2500kg) which includes the much sought after full-sized spare. This option deletes the additional seating – excellent! – BUT … it appears to be available:

  • only with the automatic transmission and
  • only on an auto of trim level HSE or above – not on, for example, the SE Tech level.

Mr. Stormtrooper, expressly stating that he had read my emails, replied:

From the emails you have sent to me I have spoken to our retailers and I have been advised that with the Discovery Sport you can place an order with a full size spare wheel and heavy duty towbar. This, I have been advised is only available with the 180PS HSE version only.

Brilliant! Ungrammatical but brilliant. This is one of those classic “no shit, Sherlock” moments, it being one of the restrictions that I had mentioned to him. I was utterly gobsmacked. It’s a damn good job I wasn’t on a telephone.

Just to add insult to injury, he went on to explain that this startling new [NOT!] piece of helpful information came from my dealer #2, the one that had introduced me to the Heavy Duty Towing Kit in the first place.

Customer Skywalker rejoined:

Well Mr. Stormtrooper,

This is quite astonishing – one could almost say unbelievable. I told you that.

[Here I quoted my original email, to refresh his memory.]

So, all you have done is to quote my own words back at me. You’ve added precisely nothing. Furthermore, you’ve done it from one of the very dealers I’d already spoken to.

What I wanted to know is, why cannot the Heavy Duty Towing Kit be placed on a 180PS SE Tech, for example. It seems like an arbitrary restriction. Land Rover clearly has the ability to rip out the 5+2 seating and stick in the towing kit. I wanted to know it could do it. What I fail to comprehend is why these seemingly illogical restrictions exist and, unless “” can go direct to the horse’s mouth, to those building the cars and setting the restrictions, what purpose does it serve? “” approaching the dealers is entirely the wrong way around, it is they who should be approaching you.

The difference between a 150PS car, which can have a full-sized spare, and a 180PS car is, I suspect, just an engine management chip – it’s the same 2-litre diesel engine.

My frustration with Land Rover increases with each contact. Put this together with a series of seemingly irrational design issues involving spare wheels, tow bars and exhaust systems, and my love for the Discovery Sport rapidly dissipates. What a crying shame.

Still, there is a positive side to this sorry tale. Having owned several piles of British crap in my youth, about 35 years ago I vowed never again to buy a British car. I’m not convinced there is such a beast these days, aside from minor small specialist companies, but I was beginning to weaken there, just for a moment. My resolve is now re-invigorated.

Finally, with the benefit of hindsight, I should have chosen Spare Wars as my tongue-in-cheek pun title rather than Going Spare, though my feeling of being on a war footing didn’t come until later. Maybe I’ll go back and rename them. 😉

Going Spare III

Repeat after me, “full-size spare wheel and tow bar”; in addition to being my mantra, this is a concept which seems to be almost lost on Land Rover when it comes to their otherwise delicious Discovery Sport model. The complexities of what is and (mostly) is not possible are mind-boggling and seem to get more confusing with each discussion.

To save new readers the effort of catching up, the story so far following parts I and II of what is now turning into some sort of crusade, appears to be as follows. Just to set the scene, there are two engine derivatives, a 150PS and a 180PS, which come in four trim levels: SE, SE Tech, HSE and HSE Luxury.

  1. On 150PS models, none of which have 5+2 seating, you can order a full size spare wheel which goes in the boot.
  2. On 180PS models, all of which have 5+2 seating, there is a £2000 optional Heavy Duty Towing Kit, which includes a full-size spare. This deletes the 5+2 seating but:
    • it is not available on any car with manual transmission
    • it is not available on SE or SE Tech trim levels, only on HSE or HSE Luxury.
  3. Both models can be ordered with a skinny (a.k.a. space saver) spare wheel which goes underneath the boot, externally, but:
    • it must be ordered on the original car (cannot be retro-fitted ‘cos they now mount an incompatible exhaust system)
    • disallows the factory fitted detachable tow bar (both utilize the same space).

Clear? No, of course it isn’t. Neither it seems, is it clear to Land Rover dealers, some of whom tend to supply differing sets of variably incorrect information.

I phoned a friend and found what seemed to be a handy-dandy email address: Let’s go straight to the horses mouth – that’ll be the horse in the horsebox that apparently only 2 out of 8 180PS models can be equipped to tow. I explained all the variably wrong information I’d received and that I really wanted a full-size spare and tow bar on a 180PS SE Tech. Since all the pieces clearly exist, why is that so difficult?

After a few days I received a reply from a chap saying that he would be handling my query.

After another week of silence I received another email from my helper:

On reading your emails, I have been in contact with a number of retailers to find out what options are available for you.


Now let me see:

  1. I talk to Land Rover dealers who appear confused, though not quite as confused or as irrational as the Land Rover Discovery Sport brochure options, so
  2. I contact Land Rover Jaguar directly in the hope that they can actually offer more sensible/flexible options.
  3. They, in turn, contact Land Rover dealers.

It sounds terribly cyclic, a sort of infinite loop; I’m still unsure as to whether this is reduced-section/skinny cyclic or full-size cyclic but it certainly seems cyclic. It’s like another manifestation of the irrational: surely to goodness, it should be the dealers contacting Land Rover about possibilities/flexibilities? Just who is in charge?

A multiple choice question: is it:

  1. putting the cart before the horse?
  2. putting the caravan before the tow car?
  3. the tail wagging the dog?
  4. all of the above?

My man wanted me to phone him but, though I can’t do it at the moment, I’m keen to talk just because it should be fun.

During the night, I had another thought. The difference between a 150PS and a 180PS is just an engine management chip; it isn’t a completely different engine. How difficult could/should it be to put a different engine management chip in what was a 150PS car with a full-sized spare inside the boot?

I’m on tenterhooks.

Going Spare II

My on-going Land Rover “spare wheel and tow bar” saga has generated a little more information.

The apparent story so far:

  1. you can have the holy grail of a full-size spare on a 150PS model (apparently because the 150PS does not have 5+2 seating) – but I wanted a 180PS model;
  2. on the 180PS models, you can buy the £2000 optional Heavy Duty Towing Kit, including a full-size spare, deleting the 5+2 seating, if:
    1. you pick an automatic transmission, not a manual, and
    2. you choose HSE trim level or above (i.e it’s not available on an SE or an SE Tech).

I wanted a 180PS for towing grunt in a lower trim level than HSE (SE Tech). I’m warming to modern automatics so that would be fine but I still can’t get my desired combination. Why can’t they drop a 180PS engine in a 150PS body style, which would give room for a full-size spare, then I’d be happy? This is what I wanted to hear from Land Rover.

In part 1, I left the sales-bod at dealer #3 trying to contact Land Rover themselves concerning the complexities of spare wheels and tow bars on Discovery Sport models to see if I could get what I wanted.

Having heard nothing since last Thursday, I rattled the cage of the sales-bod at dealer #3 who told me he’d heard nothing but shortly after, magically forwarded to me a response from Land Rover, consisting of a bulletin concerning Reduced Section Spare Wheel and Tow Bar Compatibility. I began reading with interest:

The Reduced Section Spare Wheel (029NZ) is available as a standalone option across all derivatives, but is not compatible with the line-fit Detachable Tow Bar option (028BL). This is because the detachable mechanism is located in the same space as the spare wheel.

Brilliant! So Land Rover, with reputations both as a maker of premier off-roaders and of premier tow cars, actually has managed to design a car that can, indeed, take only a skinny spare wheel OR their detachable tow bar but not both. Staggering!

This explains where my sales-bod at dealer #2 had formed the idea that you couldn’t have any tow bar with a skinny spare.

In fact, however, the Land Duffer Rover bulletin goes on to say:

To overcome this conflict, a fixed accessory tow bar has been developed which is compatible with the reduced section spare wheel (VPLCT0142).

A conflict of their own making, I might point out. Still, that’s something, I suppose: you can put a fixed tow bar on and retain a skinny spare wheel.

For the benefit of those who’ve never tried it, loading an SUV’s luggage space when there’s a fixed tow bar in place frequently results in carped and bruised shins. It’s an unappealing solution.

Better was to come. The bulletin goes on to say:

The reduced section spare wheel is not available to retro fit as an accessory because the layout of the exhaust configuration is different for cars with a line fit spare wheel.

WHAT?! What’s it actually saying? I had to read it again, such was my disbelief.

No, it was no better second time around. What it’s saying is that you have to order your car with the skinny spare option, whereupon they use an exhaust configuration that avoids the spare wheel space but, if you don’t order the spare, they put on a different exhaust configuration that gets in the way of the spare wheel space and you’re now completely stuffed should you subsequently decide you’d like a spare wheel. What utter nonsense! A universally useful exhaust system, one that’ll allow a skinny spare, exists but they’re going to fit an alternative unless you order the spare up front. It’s crap.

Looking into the future a little, this means that Land Duffer Rover Disco Sports need two alternative replacement exhaust systems. Furthermore, if you’re looking for one second hand, you need to find out if a model you are considering is suitable to your needs – the original buyer may have not wanted a spare but you may. Tough, it no longer fits. Crazy!

Mr. Sales-bod at dealer #3 signed off by saying, “I hope this helps”.

I replied:

Well, no, not really. There’s no mention of the full-sized spare, which is what I really want, at all, just the skinny. For this, there’s a little more information/explanation but it really just re-iterates the website with no further flexibility on options. Thus, it gets me no further.

These design decisions have left me wondering just how many other crazy design issues might be on board that I still don’t know about. I can feel myself kicking Land Duffer into touch.

My frustrated emotions are tempting me to say that it’s no wonder the British car industry died the death if this is how they went about designing cars. But that’s probably just frustration talking.

Going Spare

I know I’ve been silent for some time but we’ve been considering replacing our trusty, long serving tow car, a 2006 mark 2 Honda CR-V, a so-called SUV. It’s still a good car, though the technology is dated, and has served us well but it may be time for it to retire to Spain. 😉 So, we’ve been investigating potential replacements in the somewhat crowded SUV market sector. What fun we’re having.

My biggest problem where new cars are concerned is their spare wheel or, more accurately, the usual lack thereof. Our mark 2 Honda CR-V, bless it, has a full-sized spare mounted on the rear door. What a great idea. Not only is it a full-sized wheel but, being on the back door, it can be deployed without having to unload the entire contents of the boot. I have found it necessary to deploy that spare wheel three times in its 9-year history, twice whilst towing in France, hence my sensitivity towards not having one.

Many modern cars come only with an emergency inflation kit, which may or may not work and which is designed for a short run to get you off the motorway to buy a new tyre. (I suspect that you should not permanently repair a tyre once full of the gunge from the inflation kit, though I haven’t actually verified this.) Besides, get a blow-out on a motorway at speed and you’re likely to have damaged the tyre irreparably. The great majority of the remaining new cars come with (or can be supplied with) an emergency space-saver spare, being for short, slower journeys only anyway and I’m not certain of the legalities of towing with one.

Other than exotics, such as an Aston Martin (boyhood dream), I rarely fall in love with a car. However, when Land Rover introduced their Discovery Sport, a replacement to the decidedly average-looking Freelander, it was love at first sight. Surely a Land Rover would, or at least could, have a full-sized spare? It’s a Landie, for Darwin’s sake; it’s a proper off-road vehicle with descent control, etc. I went to one dealership to investigate. Let the fun commence.

Muttering my mantra of “spare wheel and tow bar”, I visited Dealer #1. My first lesson was that there are two engine options, both 2-litre diesels: one, a 150PS unit and the other, a 180PS unit. The latter is much more interesting but the first wrinkle is that all 180PS cars come with temporary seats 6 & 7 folded into the floor of the boot – no space for a spare wheel of any description in there. All is not lost, though, said Dealer #1, there’s no full-sized spare but there is an optional space-saver spare available. This, they said, goes into the boot and you lose the additional seats. [Optional? Land Rover? Proper off road vehicle, no spare? Suspending my disbelief temporarily …] We arranged a test drive. It was an inadequately short test drive but it was clearly a nice car. I don’t want the additional seats anyway; I hardly use seats 3, 4 & 5, never mind 6 & 7.

Being a little less than impressed with Dealer #1, I went to Dealer #2, again muttering “spare wheel and tow bar”.

“You can’t have both”, said the sales-bod, “it’s one or the other”.

“You have to be kidding”, I rejoined, “this is a Landie – a spare OR a tow bar?”.

Off went my man to consult his senior and some technicians.

OK, panic over, I can have an emergency spare and it goes under the boot, not in the boot, as I had been told by Dealer #1. So, you’re still stuck with those silly dickie seats. However, because the spare goes underneath, you can’t have the electrically deployable tow bar, only a manual one. Not an issue for me but …really!

My man then had another thought. He introduced me to an additional cost option [£2000, if you please] tagged a Heavy Duty Towing kit which includes an electrically deployed tow bar, surround cameras and … wait for it … yes, a full-sized spare wheel which “deletes the additional seats and goes inside the boot”. This would be the full-sized spare that Dealer #1 told me didn’t exist. Excellent! Result!! We’re getting somewhere.

Wait, don’t get too excited, there’s a gotcha: the Heavy Duty Towing kit is only offered as an option on an automatic gearbox, not on a manual. What!!?? Why on earth …? [Arghh!]

Temporarily brain dead, I retired to allow for thought before eventually girding my loins to visit Dealer #3 so I could give them the benefit of my “spare wheel and tow bar” mantra, together with the Heavy Duty Towing kit conundrum. After all, it seems that every time you ask a question at a Land Rover dealer, you gat a different answer.

Dealer #3 didn’t even know the Heavy Duty Towing kit  existed. He does now. He consulted his technicians and the most likely of three theories as to it’s being unavailable on a manual transmission seems to be that the manual transmission’s clutch might not be able to handle the torque being delivered when a hefty-ish trailer is hitched. Duh! As well as a fine off-roader, this is supposed to be one of the world’s premier tow cars. I clarified that I didn’t really want everything involved in the kit anyway, just a full-sized spare and a regular tow bar.

“Well, you can get just a full-sized spare in the 150PS car”, he said, “and add a tow bar”.

What? This would again be the full-sized spare that Dealer #1 denied. [Arghh again!]

“I can have the full-sized spare on the 150PS but not on the 180PS? This is nonsense!” This will be because the 150PS does NOT have those stupid dickie seats, I suspect.

“Can’t I just have the body of the 150PS, no seats, and a spare, but with a 180PS engine?” He offered to contact Land Rover to find out. I wandered away from Dealer #3. I still haven’t heard.

Desperation sets in; I’m weakening and considering surrender to go for the automatic box just to get that towing kit that supplies my spare wheel. Online, I start specifying a 180PS automatic in SE Tech trim (2nd model up the range, no leather seats and no panoramic sunroof, which I don’t want either). Another gotcha: the magic Heavy Duty Towing kit has once again mysteriously disappeared from the options list!! Not only is it only available on a 180PS automatic box but it’s only available on a 180PS automatic box in an HSE or HSE Luxury trim level. [Arghh yet again!!. No, make that SCREAM!]

There’s another car that DOES come with a full-sized spare: a Hyundai Tucson. It’s £10000 cheaper, too, and comes with a 5-year unlimited mileage warranty (as opposed to a 3-year warranty). It doesn’t, of course, come with a Landie’s street cred but at least Hyundai seem to want to sell cars.

Mobile Dragonflies

Odo-nutters-BannerDespite the fact that essentially photographic websites are not particularly suited to small screen devices, I now got version 1.0 of my mobile-friendly dragonfly and damselfly site, Odo-nutters, implemented.

At least it’ll be ready for the start of the new season, which is now about 2 months away, unless I’m lucky enough to bump into any in Spain earlier than that. My fingers are firmly crossed but I’m not holding my breath. 😉

A Site Makeover

cropped-Cambodian-Fishermen-300x100.jpgThe insidious march of small Internet access devices continues. I have now buckled under the pressure and given this curdhome website a responsive makeover.

Carol tried out Gastroblog and couldn’t find the “search” box on her mobile – it was way down below in the sidebar which had been pushed below the content on a narrow screen. For recipes, the search box seemed critical so I’ve found a way to move it to the header. Better!

On curdhome, I couldn’t find space for my favourite tagline on the logo/header image but my Gastroblog lesson helped me find a way of getting the tagline separately in the header, which is where it would normally be.

Image size is a challenge which may still need some work. Slowly, slowly, catchy monkey.

A bigger problem looms with Odo-nutters – sizes of embedded Google documents. Darn!

Gastroblog Goes Mobile

Blasted so-called smart phone technology has steadily been ruining website design with its ridiculous small screen restrictions. For the last year or so, I’ve felt a bit like King Canute trying to stem the inexorably rising tide. It was always a lost cause. Enough!

Gastroblog-BannerGastroblog has just been given a bit of a facelift based upon a new responsive theme. The responsive restrictions required a change to the HTML in all the recipes so, along with the new theme, they have all been modified and reloaded. It may generate a mass notification but since I effectively restored an archive, I’m not entirely sure. What the hell, a small price to pay.

I must say the new look comes over quite well on my entry-level smart phone. Check it out.

Next up, the curdhome mother-ship. 😀

Early Xmas Present

To myself, that is.

7D mark III’ve been looking forward with great anticipation to Canon’s new mark II EOS 7D camera body for some time. The main reason is that it was rumoured to be packing a built-in GPS system. As one who very nearly reported a damselfly in an incorrect location, one that would have had our county recorder jumping with excitement, geo-tagging pictures as they were taken seemed like an exciting proposition. And a safeguard against idiots who didn’t remember where shots had been taken. 😀 The new camera hit the stores in mid November. I agonized but not for too long – life can be too short, after all – bit the bullet and ordered one at full price in December. My default supplier, WEX Photographic, was temporarily out of stock but good ol’ John Lewis had >10 in stock so, for an extra 95p over the WEX price, that’s where it came from. Further more, it was delivered to my local Waitrose store, free and overnight, so I got it quicker and without having to wait in for a delivery van. Click and Collect is most definitely the way to go. Here it is complete with old lens. a.k.a. the Beast, attached.

There are other improvements over the 7D mark I, of course, one of which is supposedly better noise performance at high ISO settings. Since the old mark I 7D was not terribly good in this regard, Canon fans were hoping for considerable improvement. However, an independent review that I’ve seen suggests that the improvement is about 2/3rds stop – not as much as we’d hoped. Still, it means that ISO 800 might be very nearly as good as the old model at ISO 400, so I should get a bit more flexibility.

Another improvement is that auto-focus is maintained with lenses as slow as f8 so I should be able to use my 1.4X extender on The Beast (naturally f5.6) and maintain autofocus. I’ve tried it and it does work, albeit rather more slowly.

Since today was a sunny day, we went for a wander around Whipsnade Zoo, just to find some subjects to point my new toy at. My main aim here was to play with the GPS system rather than to take fancy pictures. The first thing to point out is that, unless you actually turn the GPS off (i.e. disable it in the menu system), the GPS remains active, and consumes battery power, even when the camera is turned off or asleep. This is because the GPS can be set to log your route as well as to geo-tag your pictures. I forgot and it and logged our drive back home. 🙂 With bright sun, I didn’t need high ISO settings so the noise wasn’t tested, but the route and pictures did give me something to play with in the Canon Map Utility software (rather clunky, I thought).

J15_0051 MarasSome pictures turned out to be interesting, though. First up was a pair of Maras which seemed to be posing quite nicely with each other. Lovey-dovey Maras? I think not, that would be anthropomorphising. What a big word!

J15_0064 Male OstrichNext, I spent quite a bit of time playing with a male Ostrich, mostly trying to get close enough for a portrait without getting so close that I came within range of its fearsome and rather dirty beak. This seems to be the best of the bunch given the angle and background. A stern looking fellow and I’m not crouching down – that’s how tall it was. Watch the birdie!

J15_0070 Young GiraffeTall things seemed to be the order of the day as we next found ourselves at the Giraffe house. There’s a young giraffe but they are, of course, still damn tall. There’s an observation platform built up so you can get more on eye-level with the beasts, though. Eye-level with the adults, that is. More by luck than judgement, I did get some interesting lighting when junior went into the house and faced the door with the sun screaming in. In this case, a slightly lower angle of view would’ve been better but regrettably impossible. I quite like the effect, though.

J15_0077 WolfFinally, the Canadian Timber Wolves were being quite active in the winter sunshine. They’ve always proved frustrating in the past, for me, but at last I got something reasonable. This shows, in my view, why man should stop messing about with nature. Here is a perfectly magnificent wild creature that doesn’t disturb its neighbourhood by barking but then along comes Homo sapiens and ruins evolution by “developing” countless irritating species of dog. Quelle domage!

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More Banking Insanity

Back in 2010 I invested in a Smart Saver Account with the Cooperative Bank. The account was at a fixed rate of interest for two years and all went swimmingly well – well, as well as any cash investment could given the ever more pathetic interest rates in operation at the time. Duly, in May 2012, the account matured. I closed the account and got all my dosh out.

A year later I was a little surprised to receive a statement for what I thought was now a closed account. The statement appeared to be telling me that the account still existed and contained a balance of £0.54. Yes, you read that correctly, 54 pence. I more or less forgot about it, i.e. ignored it.

Yet another year on, I have recently received yet another statement which still shows my 54 pence. I assume this is one of those small interest amounts caused by some time lapse between paying out my dosh and “closing” the account.

Just to tidy things up, today I thought I should close the account properly and tell them to stuff the money, all 54 pence of it (!), into a charity box, if they could do such a thing. Who was I kidding?

I called their telephone banking number, 08457 212212. After a protracted series of automated menu number selections I finally got to speak to a warm body. The warm body told me … are you ready for this? …

There’s not enough security on this account for me to do anything with it over the phone, you’ll have to go to a branch.

What the ****? I’ve never been into any Cooperative Bank branch; the account was opened over the phone, albeit on the direct phone number of the Luton Branch. Let’s face it, had I had to present myself at the Luton branch, I’d never have opened the account at all.

Ignoring for a moment the fact that my phone call may have cost me money, I would now have to drive to either Luton or to Aylesbury (the nearest branch) to see another warm body. Aylesbury is about 12 miles away so a round trip would cost me at least  2.5 litres of fuel, over £3. Even a stamp to do something in writing exceeds the balance of the account.

In complete exasperation, I told Mr. Warmbody that I might as well just let it sit there ‘cos it would cost me more to do anything with it. He was happy with that.

Little wonder that the Cooperative Bank ended up in trouble with nonsense such as this and no wonder bloody bankers in general have a bad name.

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The Thames Ring: Retrospective

[Apologies for a larger than usual post but I think 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.


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 –

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.


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


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