Stephen Hawking and the Crinan Canal

On our recent trip around the coast of Scotland we just had to pause at Crinan where that other Scottish Canal short cut reaches the open sea. Just nine miles long, but with 15 locks, the Crinan Canal goes from Adrishaig to Crinan effectively cutting out the long and possibly difficult passage around the Mull of Kintyre. We know the area quite well since we holidayed near Crinan in the 1980s.

Crinan Sea Lock and Basin

Crinan Lighthouse

Some permanently moored vessels in Crinan Basin

As a short cut for sea-going craft the Crinan sees the passage of a variety of boats, but most of today's users are sailing yachts making travelling to and from the Clyde and the Western Isles. It is a little strange seeing so many yachts passing through canal locks, and even more peculiar driving along a road alongside the canal and seeing a yacht underway on what is a relatively narrow canal. Sleek-hulled yacht are not in their natural element in locks and canals.

Navigating a Crinan Canal Lock

So where does Professor Stephen Hawking come in? We stayed at the historic Crinan Hotel which occupies and prime spot on the headland with a magnificent outlook over the sea lock and the basin and with glorious views out to sea towards Jura and Mull.

Crinan Hotel

This hotel has a room where Stephen Hawking and his family spent several holidays. The room is 27 which has good views over the canal basin and over the sea. Unlike many similar hotels in Scotland it has a lift (elevator) which I presume must have been very helpful. I have no idea when exactly the Hawkings stayed in Crinan but the hotel owner indicated that it was when their children were young.

Room 27 at Crinan Hotel

The hotel has great sea food which doesn't have far to get to the plate since it is supplied from boats that come into the basin right next to the hotel.

Fishing Boat arriving at Crinan with scallops.

Typical non-mechanised Crinan Lock

The locks at Crinan are fully mechanised but those on the rest of the canal follow the standard manual pattern with balance beams. We stopped off along the canal and helped a yacht through a couple of locks. They have an interesting addition - a spike which helps keep the gates shut. There are some canals in England that could do with such additions! 

Spike to keep lock gates shut

Maggie lending a hand

Thanks from the crew

Dunardy Bridge, Crinan Canal

There are six swing bridges along the canal. We stopped and looked at the one at Dunardy before continuing south. The Crinan Canal is worth a visit and we can recommend the Mull of Kintyre as a destination.

Visit to the Caledonia Canal

One reason for our lack of boating boating with Albert this spring has been our plan to take a late spring road trip around Scotland to celebrate my recent significant birthday. Just what birthday this is can be worked out from the fact that I was born in the January of the harshest winter the UK has suffered, and perhaps more relevant to this blog, the year most of our the canals were nationalised.

We have toured Scotland before, but not on the scale of our recent journey which took us up the East Coast to Wick, along the North Coast to Durness and then back through the Western Highlands. It was clear that along the way we would see some canal related features. Having visited the Falkirk Wheel before, we gave that a miss this time but we couldn't miss the Caledonian Canal, particularly as we were staying close by on one of our stops.

Telford's canal runs from near Fort William to Inverness, some and incorporate several major lochs along the way, including Loch Ness and some twenty-nine locks(!) including the mighty eight flight of Neptune's Staircase at Banavie near Fort William. About one-third of the 62 miles of the Caledonian is man-made. Being a ship canal everything about the navigation is on a large-scale. For those unfamiliar with the scale of the Caledonian, the locks are about the scale of  those found on the River Weaver.

Converted trawler Fear a'Bhata

At the top of the flight at Neptune's Staircase at Banavie we found a converted trawler Fear a'Bhata moored up. The owner, Donald, was on board and after some discussion he invited us on board. We had a great chat about the boat and his plans. It appears that this 1960's boat has been converted to tourist trips and will soon be operating through the Hebrides. The generous cabin was very well engineered and has lots of room for passengers because the mizzen mast is mounted off the roof. It looks like a great and well thought out project.

Trip boat Cruiser taking a group from Gairlochy to Banavie

As we left the top lock at Banavie the trip boat arrived and started disembarking passengers into a coach. They had to dodge the showers.

40 ft wide locks

Capstan that was formerly used to operate the gates

Company house ("Telford House") at Banavie

We travelled by car alongside the canal north east to Gairlochy where the canal discharges in Lock Lochy. There were several yachts with moorings above the top lock and some canoe activity.

Lighthouse marks the entrance to the canal from Loch Lochy
"Telford's house" at Gairlochy

Thomas Telford was thought to have stayed at this company house (above) in Gairlochy on some of his trips to visit the canal's construction. Evidently, the bow-window room on the first floor is named Telford's Room. The windows certainly would have provided good views along the canal in both directions.
Moorings at Gairlochy

Bridge over the canal at Gairlochy

Interpretation Board at Gairlochy Bridge

At the bridge in Gairlochy there is an interpretation board detailing how the first commando units used to march from Spean Bridge where they arrived by train and marched to the Achnacary Castle for their initial training. At Spean Bridge there is the striking and touching Commando Memorial.

Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge

We passed by the south-western end of the Caledonian Canal on the train from Fort William to Mallaig - the West Highland Line. From the train you can see where the canal enters Loch Eil at Corpach. Again there is a lighthouse. 

Corpach Lighthouse and canal entrance
Swing road bridge at Banavie from the West Highland Railway

Neptune's Staircase can also be seen from the train at Banavie as the railway and road cross by swing bridges that are only a few metres apart.

I can recommend a visit to the Caledonian if you are in the area, particularly if you are enthusiast for Telford. The paperback Caledoninan Canal by Sandy Cameron is an excellent historical account of this great engineering enterprise and is well illustrated. Its now my bedside reading.

The Great Towpath Walk - Brian Bearshaw

Long time since I posted. I've been busy on various non-waterways projects and the months just rolled by. However, I was still active reading and buying waterways books so you can expect a few such posts in the near future - and we do intend boating during the summer.

Cover featuring Foxton

One of my recent finds followed on from  my post on The Towpaths of England by Brian Bearshaw. You may recall that I noted that in that book some individual canal-side walks were featured but the centre of England appeared neglected. This book is different and consists of one long walk through the centre of England from London to York. It therefore covers many of the canals that were "missing" from his earlier book including the Grand Union. I say earlier because this book was published in 1988 following Towpath Walks which came out in 1985. This book follows the author walking from central London via the River Thames and then along the Grand Union to Leicester followed by walks alongside the Rivers Soar, Trent and Ouse.

Route of the walk (back cover)

The walk was obviously a considerable undertaking requiring careful planning. Each chapter is basically one day's worth of walking - making this a 16 day walk. As with Towpaths of England, this hardback book is beautifully illustrated with stylish black and white drawings by David Chesworth.

A typical map for a day's walk

The text is more interesting than Bearshaw's earlier book with more content related to the people he met on the way. I suppose that is more of the nature of long distance walking as opposed to walking on single days because overnight stops are required. Most evening stops are only alluded to in the book and it is not that easy to work out where the author spent each night, although there are clues.

Copper mill, Harefield 
The inn is now The Coy Carp

Windmill in Milton Keynes

On most occasions Bearshaw was fortunate with his overnight stops but on one occasion his source, presumably a guidebook, let him down badly. This incident was of particular interest to me because firstly the location is very well known to us, but secondly the way Bearshaw recovered from his predicament. He was weary, and it was getting dark, when he met Brenda Walker who ran Anchor Cottage Crafts at Long Buckby. We knew Brenda in the 1990s when we often stopped at her shop and browsed her wares. We also knew her son who lived in our village. Bearshaw was obviously so grateful for being taken in for the night by Brenda because she not only gets plaudits for her breakfast but she also is the only character he meets that is mentioned by name - she obviously made an impression on him. Strangely, she doesn't appear in the books index which only lists historical characters.

River Soar
I found it a good book to read during the winter evenings. Although thirty years-old most places mentioned are still very much the same so it still has relevance for today's boaters. Making comparisons, particularly with some of the boats illustrated is a fun pastime. It is particularly interesting to note the changes that have occurred on the River Trent; when the book was written it was still a busy commercial waterway.

River Trent scene

Bearshaw makes a number of off-towpath diversions during the walk, notably along the Trent and at York but his focus remains the towpath and the history of the areas passed. The River Trent chapters certainly opened my eyes to some of the historic areas that the river traverses.


When reviewed Towpaths of England, I likened it to a guidebook and noted they didn't produce books like that any more. The Great Towpath Walk is is less of a guidebook and more of a travelogue and they are a very popular form of non-fiction. I can just imagine Michael Palin taking this journey along with a camera crew and writing a spin-off book. Of course today's travelogues are usually gloriously illustrated coffee-table books with colour photographs and not modestly sized books with hand-drawn monochrome illustrations, but therein lies its charm. I suggest you look out on the usual on-line suppliers for a copy which should be available at modest cost.

Stern Fenders

Albert has (unusually) sported four stern fenders for some time. When we originally bought Albert back in 2003 the stern had a single tipcat and a single long extended button braced by turn buckles. Both had seen slightly better days so I renewed them in 2004 with the usual arrangement of two standard tipcats and a button. After some time a realised that the fenders didn't actually cover the whole of Albert's ample rudder, probably because the tipcats were not particularly deep and they had also started becoming compressed. I therefore took the easy way out and six years ago I added another tipcat to the stern array, making four fenders in total.

Albert's Three Fenders 2017

With the passage of time this arrangement became more and more scruffy and the fenders became more and more compressed making adjustment a regular process. Just before Christmas I decided enough was enough and I would start again with a complete set of new fenders. Again I went to Tradline Fenders in Braunston and after some discussion I decided that a normal "working boat" arrangement of two wide deep-bellied tipcats (26 and 24 inches) and a long button would suffice. They arrived last week (there's a waiting list) and today they were installed on Albert. I think they look the part and they certainly cover the rudder.

Albert's Four Fenders in 2011

Towpaths of England by Brian Bearshaw

Nowadays I rarely get second-hand canal books given as presents since most of my friends and family find it difficult to find books that are not already part of my collection. However, for my recent landmark birthday a friend of ours managed to discover an interesting book that was not on my radar.

The book is Towpaths of England by Brian Bearshaw.  Hard backed leisure books like this were already a dying breed when it was published back in 1985 and nowadays they just don't feature. Most modern travellers would simply log on to walking web-site, or even try Canal and River Trust web pages for the sort of information it provides. The book is organised into a number of walks (twenty -six in all) with details of sites local to the canals concerned. The narrative provided by the Lancastrian author is interesting but of necessity draws on many familiar historical texts.

The local colour provided by the text has, of course, changed a lot over the 30 years since this book was written. For example, the Kennet & Avon walk rarely includes much about boats because of course the navigation was not fully open when the book was written. The text reports what a daunting prospect the Caen flight would have been during the days of canal carrying and notes that restoration is required since the flight was closed in 1951.

All the walks are along canals (no river navigations) and the emphasis is on northern waters which is no surprise given the authors background. However, some southern walks are included, notably the Regent's Canal and the Chelmer & Blackwater. Stretches of the Grand Union are included but the author fails to cover the Grand Junction and concentrates on the Market Harborough to Leicester section, a section near Solihull and the Northampton arm.

The jewel of this publication just has to be its illustrations. It is very well illustrated by some excellent pen and ink drawings by David Chesworth. To me its the drawings that make the book. Many illustrations are of locations that don't often get recorded and some are just great pieces of art.

Examples of the book still appear to be available through the usual channels, and for not much cost. If you enjoy good drawings of canal scenes then this book is definitely worth considering.