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Seven Guys in a Boat: The Caen Hill challenge

David Hencke photo
David HenckeLondon and Wiltshire
Seven Guys in a Boat: The Caen Hill challenge
Seven friends still just in their prime - average age 69 - take on Britain's biggest canal flight in a narrowboat as part of a relaxing spring break. Who says we are past it.

Some of my ultra fit lobby journalist colleagues and nephews run marathons. Some of my friends do mad things like cycling from London to Paris in 24 hours. But for some of us at our time of life the challenge has to be a little more measured.

So seven of us decided to take on the challenge of Britain's longest flight of locks on the Kennet and Avon canal as part of a four day trip from Bradford on Avon to Horton. Given our average age is 69 and some were novices on a narrowboat it was still a serious challenge.

Particularly when your hearing is not so good, your balance is not quite perfect and your muscles not as agile as a 20 year old and one of us, my wife Margaret, excused lock duty, is recovering from a stroke.

But in 24 hours -punctuated by an overnight stay next to a canal side pub at Horton- we negotiated no fewer than 58 locks to get up and back down again without a mishap.

The locks known as Caen Hill (pronounced Kane) rise 237 feet over two miles - with 16 of them virtually back to back.Each trip up and down takes five hours. They were restored in the 1970s and 1980s after they fallen into serious decay.

For a group of " golden oldies " - our cumulative age total is over 480 - this meant working each lock and involved opening a closing a double set of locks as a relay team. Amazingly none of us fell in, only one of us fell over and this had nothing to do with a lock, and we found ( at least my surprise) that we still had the energy to do it. So much due to that free orange juice and cod liver oil we got growing up under the Attlee government.

On the way up we were able to double up with another boat - relying on the brawn and brains of youth to aid the elderly. On the way down we had the flight to ourselves - passing only one boat on the way up.

The Canal and River Trust - successor to the nationalised British Waterways- has people around to help if you get into difficulty. But apart from several pleasant conversations they had no need to intervene.

Indeed the main obstacle was two pairs of nesting swans - right next to the locks . But once we had mastered the gentle art of throwing grass into the water to distract the male from following the boat into the lock where it would be crushed when the water drained out, it was literally plain sailing.

We also were lucky with the weather. we had a downpour when we arrived and a downpour when with left - with mainly brilliant sunshine - and warm enough for a few hours for T shirt weather - in between.

My one complaint was the building work on the canal - which closed one road and diverted the towpath elsewhere. Foolishly relying on the workman and locals I was told I could still cross a bridge on foot to reach the pub and ended up crossing the canal a mile up tramping through three muddy fields and breaking and entering the building site - a pensioner vandal -in desperation to get to the bar.

The real thanks should be to my shipmates, my co-author Francis Beckett - skilled navigator and his (newly wed )wife, Linda Cohen, who organised and booked the trip. Chris Kaufman, singer and accomplished crewman; Mike Brereton,.a great cook who kept us well fed from dawn to dusk, and his wife, Pearl, who mastered nautical skills faster than me. Margaret, who had a bit of trepidation, about the trip, had great guts in mastering her river legs in a confined space.

I should recommend four pubs. Pride of place should go to the refurbished Barge Inn, Bradford on Avon, which had an imaginative menu, and served London Pride, Ringwood brewery ale and surprisingly draft beer from New Zealand.

Also good on the trip were the Three Magpies at Seend which served a proper beef and ale pie as well as Wadsworth bitter; The Bridge at Horton, which served a wider selection of Wadsworth ales and the Barge Inn, Seend.

#canals, #locks, #caen hill, #devizes, #kennet and avon canal, #canal pubs

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