Page published 2 Februaryy 2015
This page originally appeared as a blog post published 4 October 2011.
It had been Sylvia who had suggested it, after a friend of hers had said she'd be taking a coach trip from London to visit Banbury Canal Day. And so it was, on the hottest October day on record, that Diana and I took Sylvia to Banbury to meet up with Hilary and enjoy a day by the canal ourselves.
The journey there was uneventful. We picked up Sylvia from Coventry. Then it was not much more than a 40 minute drive down the A46 and M40. Back home, I scanned the chapters in "Narrow Boat", Tom Rolt's seminal work about his cruise on Cressy in 1939, and began to feel we hadn't done that journey in proper style. Indeed, to show proper respect, I guess I ought to refer to him as L.T.C. Rolt, the form of his name used as author of the book.
The Canal Day banner hangs under the Museum Bridge. One of two taxi boats was already busy with passengers.
As we arrived in Banbury, Sylvia was in full tilt reminiscence mode, as it had been her home town for a number of years. Finding somewhere to park the car was not straight forward. The first one we found was a multi-storey, right next to the canal and serving the Castle Quay shopping centre. It looked as if it would be expensive for a long stay and, in any case, had long queues. We tried another, but that was closed and full of Canal Day stalls.
The third place we found, another multi-storey, appeared to be taking us well away from the water but, not only was it near empty, but turned out to be next to the Market Square and provided an opportunity to walk through the town and around the new shopping centre - more opportunity for Sylvia's memory to be challenged.
The remains of Tooley's Yard are swamped by modern steel and glass structures. It's hard to call them buildings.
I knew, from my time when I maintained the site www.waterwaysguides.co.uk and, between 1997 and 2003, bought successive complete sets of Nicholson's Guides, that Banbury had been through a complete waterfront re-generation. To those who take an interest in the rise of recreational boating on our Canal network, "Tooley's Yard" is a veritable Mecca, being the place where Tom Rolt had Cressy, an ex-Shroppie Fly Boat, fitted out as his floating home and from where he started that famous cruise, which once recorded in his book, drew together the founder members of the Inland Waterways Association.
The children seem fascinated by the work about to start in the one shed left at Tooley's Yard.
Once on to the waterfront, we crossed the the Lift Bridge (No 164 on the Canal) and worked our way through the crowds to find somewhere to sit and make arrangements for the day. We found ourselves immediately opposite Tooley's Yard beside a concrete slab of a building, which I understand houses the museum. Unfortunately, we never found out and I remain slightly annoyed that we missed the slide show "Then and Now Down By The Cut" that was due to be shown there, in spite of the fact that someone came along and thrust a card in our hands reminding us about it.
I'm not sure how the lady spinning fitted in with those engines, outside the corrugated iron extension to Tooley's shed.
I took my leave of the ladies for a while and took a stroll back across Bridge 164 and along the other side of the canal, returning over the next footbridge a hundred yards further up the cut. I wanted to see what I could of Tooley's Yard. Under the glass and steel was a dry dock housing a narrowboat undergoing repair - a man was hard at work with an angle grinder, spraying sparks all over the place.
The old brick shed turned out to be a blacksmith's forge where a group of three men seemed to be about to work some wrought iron on an anvil, while small children looked on. Attached to it was a further black painted corrugated iron shed, along side which was a woman hard at work spinning. She seemed to be concentrating on the task in hand so I didn't feel inclined to engage her in conversation. In any case, had I done so, then I would probably have blocked all passage along that side of the canal.
Beyond that were a group of men with a set of engines on display. I guess I should have done the manly thing and take an interest, but they seemed engaged in their own conversations, so that was another opportunity to learn something missed.
The record temperatures meant thought not yet midday the whole waterfront was heaving with people.
It was now just before midday and temperatures were soaring. The whole waterfront was as packed. I tried to take an interest in some of the narrowboats. One, I recall, was called "Rivendell and it had a notice in a window which seemed to be inviting people aboard to have a look round. However, no one seemed to be aboard, and I assumed that unaccompanied viewing was not what was intended, as this was clearly an expensive and well cared for craft, so I continued to elbow my way along the bank making for the bridge beyond. It looked as if it was going to be a bit of a fight to cross it.
In spite of the heat, the flower baskets on the footbridge seemed to be holding up better than many of the visitors.
Once I got on top of the bridge I looked back down to where I had been and it seemed that for a moment the crowds had cleared on that side, but from behind the tress on the left music was starting up. I made my way towards it and found myself in the General Foods Social Club garden. I young lad wearing a Town Council tabard was handing out Canal Day programmes. From this I learnt that I was watching "Scarecrow", who had just started their set.
After my circuit round the Lift Bridge and Foot Bridge I returned to find our party complete.
I only stayed a brief while as I didn't want to leave the ladies too long and when I returned to my starting point I discovered the part was now complete. Hilary had arrived and managed to meet up with Sylvia. I was concerned that I was getting side-tracked and not doing enough boaty things, and as, a few minutes later, a water taxi passed us, I was off again.
Dancing Duck, turns above Banbury Lock before picking up more passengers from outside Debenhams.
My plan was to get some photographs of the lift bridge in operation. I arrived on the bridge in time to see it winding (That's canal-speak for turning, and should be pronounced, like the blowy stuff, as in windlass). But then I had to wait - seemingly for ages while it manoeuvred alongside the quay to swap passengers. All I could do in the meantime was take pictures of the guys in kayaks who passed under the bridge.
It's not just narrowboats. Kayaks are also to be seen on the water.
Finally, but only after a phone call from Diana asking where I was, the taxi depaerted and the IWA volunteer placed her windlass on the spindle and started cranking the winch to raise the bridge.
A volunteer from the IWA cranks the winch to raise the lift bridge
The Dancing Duck passes under the lift bridge with a new set of passengers, heading for Sovereign Wharf.
At last I could get my picture and return to the girls. Sylvia and Hilary were already on the move and had their own plans for a while, so I suggested to Diana that we make for the GF Social club garden to listen to "Scarecrow".
Scarecrow are the first of the bands Diana and I see, playing outside the GF Social club.
Although they do use an electric bass, on their web site Scarecrow describe themselves as an "acoustic band that plays folk music but offers something a bit different: some instrumental music, some songs and occasionally a bit of jazz or blues. Some tracks are well known and others more obscure but all have been worked on to produce tight and unusual arrangements" and that what a fair summary of what we heard. Definitely a band I would like to catch again. We stayed listening for about half an hour before making contact with Hilary and Sylvia to arrange moving on together to find some food.
We begin to make our way to the "French Market", but it is becoming difficult to move along the towpath.
I'm not sure whether it was a mistake to move on. If anything the crowds seem even denser than before we'd stopped to hear "Scarecrow". The one main area we believe we have missed is what is signed as the French Market. We get there by crossing the "Tom Rolt Bridge", built to provide access to the new Castle Quay multi-storey car park.
The Town Council may call it "Canal Day" but it's just a general family festival, complete with Horse and cart rides.
On the way up onto the bridge we pass a horse and cart offering rides around Spiceball Park. Diana and I return there later in the afternoon to join in with the singing at a service organised by the Boaters Christian Fellowship.
The view towards towards the Compton Road car park, filled with stalls offering assorted food and artisan wares.
The French Market, turns out to be much more. There's all kind of food available, from most parts of the world and a mass of craft stalls as well, many selling local produce.
Diana buys me a half pint of "Hooky". I refuse more as I will have to drive later.
At the end of the first aisle we find the Hook Norton Brewery's tent and Diana buys me a half pint, before we turn to a nearby stall and purchase a form of toasted ham sandwich with a layer of toasted cheese on top. I assume this is a French delicacy so say "Merci!", but on opening the bag it is placed in on sale it is all printed in Italian.
We buy an interesting toasted ham sandwich, with a generous helping of cheese on top from one of the stalls.
We all seem to split up again as different stalls take each of our fancy. Diana spots one that she thinks Sylvia will enjoy. I hang about by a musician, at the edge of a coffee stall, who has an amazing array of effects pedals in a case at his feet. I really do wonder if I ought to get into MIDI and get up to date with my one man band gear. I shall have to think about it!
Morris Dancing, but not as the traditionalists would want to see it. Looks like the dancers are having fun, however.
After the food we move on through the rest of the stalls, stopping briefly to see some Morris Dancers, before going through the open gates towards Sovereign Wharf. It's where the water taxis terminate. There's a long queue and, it seems to us, little pointing in waiting.
Peter, the skipper of Pet 2, a great character and the only person with whom Diana and I talked boats.
As we walk back, I notice the small boat I spotted earlier shortly after we arrived. It's an eight foot clinker dinghy, running a small electric outboard, and well decorated with a mass of bunting. The boat looks familiar, so I call out, "Is that a Barrow Boat?" The answer comes that it is, and apparently encouraged by the interest, its helmsman brings her alongside so Diana and I can chat with him.
Peter, for I assume that is his name, explains how he had bought it ready made, and not from a kit, but had added the pointed extension to the pram bow, explaining that it made it easier to steer in high winds. He told how he used to own a narrowboat, called Petrosa, but after he was widowed sold it so his new small boat is called Pet 2 as it didn't seem right to call it Petrosa 2. After a little more talk about batteries, he reckoned he had nine hours running time available with what he had on board, and electric engines, we made our farewells. For me that little episode was probably the best five minutes of the day. After all, we had come to a "Canal Day" and not really talked to anyone about either boats or the waterways all day.
Sold out! Hardly surprising! What more can be said on a day of record temperatures.
Diana and I had left Sylvia and Hilary at Sovereign Wharf. They were hoping to take the taxi back to Debenhams, below the lift bridge. We made our way back towards the garden, passing the now deserted Hook Norton tent. The programme had suggested that "The Paperback Writers" should be on stage and I was keen to see if they were going to be a covers band or something more.
The Paperback Writers - "What do you expect when you give folkies electric guitars" said their bassist.
The GF Social Club garden was not a huge venue, but it was standing room only whenever we were there.
It turned out that it was solid Beatles, and not so bad. There was no attempt at Liverpool accents and I felt that, during the first few numbers we heard, the lead guitar was too far back in the mix, but the audience seemed to be enjoying it, with a few energetic enough to dance in the heat.
As we left the festival we discovered The Mill Arts Centre, another venue with interesting music.
As it approached 16:00 it was time to make contact with Hilary and Sylvia again, so we could escort Hilary back to the railway station, where she could pick up her coach. This we did and, as we walked down the canal, discovered yet another music venue, The Mill Arts Centre. Unfortunately, we didn't have time to stay and instead crossed the Pedestrian Bridge (No 165) to walk through the Bus Station and onto Bridge Street, to get to the station.
Below Albion Bridge the canal changed character completely, to the more conventional peace and quiet.
I couldn't resist a photograph of the canal below Albion Bridge. It was so much more typical of the canal system and such a contrast with the crowds just 100 yards to the north - empty towpath, except for a distant couple walking their dog, a moored boat or two, one of which had people aboard taking the sun and chatting with a towpath walker. It quite made me want to be out on the water. It had been an interesting day, which I had enjoyed but, for me, not really a "Canal Day".
However, I'm sure the Town Council will have been pleased. The weather was idyllic and must have surpassed anything that any organiser could possibly have hoped for, but there was remarkably little for a boating enthusiast to get excited about. To be fair, the programme never claimed the event would be a day for enthusiasts, rather it was one for "tourists, holiday makers and visitors".