Wednesday 18 February 2015

Winter canal fix 4; the rest of the Exeter Ship Canal

Tuesday 17th February

We couldn’t pass up the chance of a canal walk on a such glorious day!  Once again we parked at Countess Wear but this time we went all the way to the Turf Hotel at the estuary end of the canal.  It was cold today, but without ice and the sun was warm on our backs. 

morning shadows

The towpath was very busy – what do you expect on a sunny day in half-term? - and we were relieved to get to the point where the cycle track splits off and we could walk in peace.

towpath bike path split

The Exminster Marshes, maintained by the RSPB as a reserve, stretch out to the west.  The cycle track runs below the towpath and I don’t think the cyclists have much of a view.  How many would have noticed this brilliant tree stump as they sped along?

exminster marshes

'young man' tree stump

We’d remembered the binoculars, and soon identified a flock of widgeon and four shoveler in one of the flooded areas, though too far away for a decent photo.  A bit further on we saw some brent geese (the dark-bellied form).  The Exe estuary is one of their key wintering grounds.  They will be off to the Russian Arctic soon to breed.

brent geese on marshes

Just as we were getting hungry we caught a glimpse of the pub’s roof above the reeds.  There is a large mooring above the lock, mostly yachts laid up for the winter, but with a few more unusual boats too;

moorings above lockmoored boats 1 

The pub is lockside, with extensive gardens stretching between the lock and the estuary.  It re-opened last weekend after its winter closure, though only at lunchtime till the days are longer.  There is an access road for deliveries and employees’ cars but the closest public road access is almost a mile away, so it’s not worth their while to open for the winter months. 

turf above the lock

It’s hugely popular with walkers, cyclists and birdwatchers, and boaters (the sailor kind) too in the summer.  You’d need a pretty shallow draught to use the lock at low tide.

lock tailchannel to lock 

Turf Hotel is dog-friendly, and we could have stayed inside by the wood-burner, but went outside into the sunshine.  The beer is good and the menu, though not enormous, is interesting and we had excellent toasties. This was the view from our table.

view at lunch

We joined the birdwatchers before we left to check out the birds feeding along the channels in the estuary.  The picture below shows the view across the Exe to Exton, with the Scots Pines of Woodbury Beacon and the beechwoods of Woodbury Castle on the skyline.  In the foreground are the remains of a wooden boat which has lain there rotting for years.

lympstone and birds

With the geese we spotted two avocet and several godwit, bar-tailed we were told by those who knew (bar-tailed godwit beaks curve slightly upwards whereas the black-tailed have straight bills).  Lots of gulls too, but I’m not very good at identifying gulls especially at this distance.  The photo below shows a Stuart Line Avocet Cruise rounding a channel marker buoy.  These popular cruises, complete with on-board experts, run from Exmouth for people to see the birds wintering on the estuary.  We went on one a couple of years ago and saw the large flocks of avocet for which the estuary is known as well as many other birds and a seal.  The church on the skyline is at Lympstone.

stuart line approaches

On our way back the geese, which had come down to the estuary while we were at the pub, started to return to the marshes.  First in skeins

V geese

and then a huge loose flock, maybe 500 strong, was overhead, and circled round us and back to the river.  A stunning sight.

hundreds of geese

We decided to walk back to the car on the other side of the canal and crossed at the only fixed bridge (if you don’t count the motorway).  If we had come at the weekend (and if it had not been low tide) we could have taken the ferry across the river to Topsham.

pontoon for ferry

On the river side of the canal you walk beside the reedbeds which spread along the marshes by the river.  Unfortunately the roar from the M5 in the distance drowns out the soft soughing of the wind in the reeds.

reeds to m5 at topsham

The M5 crosses the canal then strides northwards across the reedbeds – it reminded us a bit of the Wolverhampton level under the northern end of the M5.

M5 across the reedbeds

At least on this side of the canal there are very few bikes and you get a much better view of the river bridge at Countess Wear!   Close to us on the river, though not close enough to photograph, we spotted a male red-breasted merganser, the smart diving duck with the punk hairdo.

river bridge from canal

We’re planning this year’s cruising now.  We’re hoping to go north this year – we’ve visited Chester and Ellesmere Port on the Shroppie but haven’t made it to the end of the T&M before.  We haven’t decided whether to go for the Leeds and Liverpool or the Standedge tunnel!

Sunday 8 February 2015

Winter canal fix 3: a bit more of the Exeter Ship Canal.

With an hour free before a coffee rendezvous with our son and his partner at their new house, we opted for a brisk walk down the next stretch of the Ship Canal.

In the autumn we walked from the terminus to the bascule bridge at Countess Wear.  Today we parked by the bridge and walked the other way in brilliant sunshine.  The canal above the bridge was frozen -

ice stops under bridge

but on the other side of the bridge it was mostly open water.  The sewage works is the most prominent feature on this stretch. 

sewage works 1

Many years ago I was a helper Mum when our son’s class visited the works – totally fascinating.  The strongest memory I have is the chorus of ‘Eurggghhhhh!!!’ when the children saw the mechanical screening area – a turning cylinder type of mechanism with spikes to catch floating items, festooned with dripping loo paper and all sorts of other stuff …..  ‘Why are there all those white balloons?’…  I don’t remember the answer that was given but the grown-ups were amused!  I do remember being told that the water that is discharged into the river (the other side of the works) is clean enough to drink – it certainly looked clean enough.  And the entire office block was heated and powered by a combined heat and power plant run on the methane gas from the treatment process.  I hope it still is.

sewage farm 2

From April 1963 to December 1998, the sewage sludge was taken out to sea by MV Countess Wear and dumped.  The law on dumping at sea changed and so this ceased at the end of 1998.  There is a fascinating account of one of these trips in a pdf in the archives of  (‘A short sea voyage’, page 17 of their February 2011 newsletter, only available as a direct link from Google – I found the link by searching for MV Countess Wear.)  It also has the spec for those interested.  This site has pictures of the vessel.

We couldn’t tell from our side of the canal where the wharf had been; the pictures below show that only the area alongside the access road is now open enough, but it was probably nearer the works which is now all concealed behind reeds, scrub and trees.

where was countess wear moored 1  where was countess wear moored  2

There were plenty of others enjoying the bright sunshine.  The towpath here forms part of the National Cycle Route 2 and there were many cyclists and runners – plenty of space for all as it was built wide enough for maintenance vehicles to use.


We walked almost as far as the M5 crossing, about a mile away.  There were three craft moored on the opposite bank – no signs of life though.  One looked like a houseboat, another like something naval, and the third a little fishing boat.

maybe houseboat - above M5  maybe warship above M5

It was noisy from the M5, a few hundred yards across the water meadows as it swings round to cross the canal and river a little further on.  We turned round here.

m5 view

In spite of the freezing wind (and a pronounced whiff from the other side of the canal) there were several pike fishermen out on both banks.  You can just about see that the canal is frozen near the edge, and the wind is causing ripples further out.  No-one was without a hat and this chap was hugging his insulated mug.  Meg found a ball to play with, as she often does.

fishing 1

fishing 2

The Old Sludge Beds nature reserve has been developed on part of the old sewage works.  The water levels are now managed to provide a ‘mosaic of wetland habitats, open water, freshwater reedbed and scrub’ – see  Daubenton’s bat and Cetti’s warbler occur, and there are also starling roosts (like the one you can see on Tixall Wide at the right time of year).  Not a lot to be seen on a midwinter morning though.

ice boundary

There are good views of the river bridge in this direction (the safety barrier in the foreground is on the road to the sewage works).

river bridge

We hope to complete the walk down to the sea lock our next time out here.  The pub there, known as Turf after the lock, closes during the winter but opens again next weekend!  The small notice gives details of the Topsham ferry times.

turf reopening date

Let’s hope it’s another sunny day, though a little less cold would be nice!

Wednesday 4 February 2015

A whizzy new toy

Dave has just spent a couple of days aboard to charge the batteries and do a few jobs.  Rather him than me!  This was Calcutt on Monday morning …..

frozen marina 4

Not the view from Chuffed unfortunately.  Dave went up to the office to say hello and pick up Towpath Talk and Tillergraph and took his camera with him.

frozen marina 3

The ducks were on their way to a tiny patch of unfrozen water:

cold feet

But some wildlife was stuck where it was.

cold teddy

While the sun was out, Dave washed the whole of the outside and waxed one side, which is now lovely and shiny again.  Inside we continue to have problems with condensation.  The woodwork below the windows and portholes will be fine after rubbing down and re-varnishing once the warmer weather is here, but the top of the wardrobe door under the edge of the sliding hatch is proving intractable -

damp marks

Last summer Dave managed to remove most of the staining using oxalic acid and after re-varnishing it was almost as good as new – now look at it!  Maybe we will just have to cover it while we are not on the boat. 

The mushrooms also drip condensation onto the cooker and table, which we have to leave covered when we come home.  Dave left a couple of bowls of salt out in the hope that some of the moisture in the air will be absorbed rather than condensing out.

And he brought me home a present! 

whizzy new toy

I prefer to use my long-handled windlass for stiff paddle gear, but it’s too long to use on most gate paddles and it’s a pain to carry around as well as the normal one (which has the plastic whizzy sleeve thing round the handle which makes it nicer to use than the ones without).  We have seen people using this new-style kind, which give you extra length when you need it, but haven’t been able to find one with the whizzy handle – but there it was in Calcutt chandlery and now it’s mine!  Can’t wait for our first trip!