A trip on the Sharpness Canal with English Holiday Cruises – Part 2

Fuelled up with a ‘full English’ from the galley, it was time to retrace the route of the tall ships that used to carry goods between Gloucester and all parts of the world in our not-quite-as-tall hotel boat, the 4* MV Edward Elgar, with English Holiday Cruises.

But standing on the upper deck – although quickly sitting down to to sail safely under the bridge just out of the historic docks –  we did get a tall-ish view over the lush, rolling countryside to the Forest of Dean and the Cotswolds, rather than just a look at the towpath and dense brush and tree growth on the sides of the Gloucester-Sharpness Canal.

Armed with a post-brekkie brew, we headed through Saul Junction, making a date to call on the way back, and pressed on to Frampton-on-Severn, looking across the stretch of river where the notorious Bore begins to form  before racing upstream at certain times of the year.

Inside Berkeley Castle We moored up here, and after a sandwich platter lunch, with apple fritter to follow,  we boarded a small coach and headed past Frampton’s charming canal-side church dating from 1086 and were driven inland alongside the longest village green in England, noting that there is a pub at each end, before arriving at picturesque, pound-notes-and-pedigree Berkeley Castle – as in Berkeley Hunt and Berkeley Square etc., etc.. Steeped in history and home to the same family line since the 12th century, the castle in it’s eight acres of gardens is well worth a visit, especially when shown round by a delightful and entertaining tour guide who knew all manner of fascinating facts about the great and good – and not-so-good – showing us, among other things, the cell where King Edward II was kept captive and reputedly murdered.

Bearing in mind that it is a Norman castle with many original features, there is limited wheelchair and buggy access, but with its medieval kitchens, Great Hall and State apartments, there’s still an enormous amount to see.

Back at the Elgar, there was time for a stroll before captain’s cocktails and dinner – pate with chutney and melba toast; slow-cooked blade of beef with cauliflower cheese, potato rosti and fine beans; followed by summer fruit terrine with chantilly cream, then cheeses and coffee and another diverting table quiz.

One of the canal bridges After a good night’s sleep, a bacon and cheese croissant beckoned for breakfast and we carried on to Sharpness, still with its connection to the sea into the Bristol Channel, and a skilled U-turn was called for to start the return trip. This brought us back past the remains of the old Severn railway bridge, fatally damaged in an oil barge collision disaster in 1960 and later demolished, before we moored up to see the Purton Hulks – an astonishing site where redundant barges have been beached to form breakwaters and protect the vulnerable river banks from the fierce tidal flow, especially the vital embankment dividing the river from the canal. Aerial surveys have revealed at least  80 historic hulks in this nautical graveyard, from eerie skeletons of early wooden vessels buried deep in the silt and largely overgrown, to huge ferro-concrete barges – remembering that it’s displacement, not weight, that governs floating! – from the Second World War, when more traditional materials were needed for the war effort.

The silt and sandbanks here need treating with extreme caution, so it was good to be in the knowledgeable company of David Viner, Heritage Advisor with the Canal and River Trust to keep us on the safe side and tell us the riveting (and riveted!) details.

With the tide urgently gurgling in, it was time to move on and moor up at another ‘must’ stop – the nearby Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Centre founded by Sir Peter Scott, seen as the birthplace of nature conservation and where a stay of a couple of hours, with a free taxi to and from, was barely enough to take in the wonders that were often within touching distance.

But dinner beckoned and we were joined by affable company owner Richard Clements and his wife, Judith, the hospitality director, for aperitifs before sitting down for the main event: creamy vegetable soup; succulent leg of lamb with roast potatoes, parsnips and thyme sauce; orange custard profiteroles with chocolate sauce; then cheeses and coffee.

The bow of a grounded hulk It was easy to have a lively conversation among the lot of us over dinner, as for much of the trip there were only12 people on board, although there are berths for 22 in the 11 en-suite, outside cabins, as well as the live-in crew. It’s also worth noting at this stage that coffee and tea are available all day and night, and there’s also a  daily happy hour in the bar from 6 – 8pm, with bargain wine and 20 per cent off all drinks. As well as free house wine with dinner, there are also very reasonable wines from £13.50 a bottle to a decent fizz at £17.50 and champagne at £29.

Glass in hand, there was no quiz on our final night, but excellent live entertainment from swing and jazz duo Ain’t Misbehavin’ who were spot-on at reading their audience and excelling with numbers from Glenn Miller to Gerry Rafferty via George Shearing and Dave Brubeck – an unexpected treat.

A late, great night, and our last day dawned all too early, but then a breakfast of scrambled eggs with bacon or smoked salmon set us up for a sail to Saul Junction and the Cotswold Canals Trust Visitor Centre  where enthusiasts Clive and Jill Field told of the splendid project to restore two historic waterways and connect the Severn to the Thames.

A walk around the lively junction, with its marina, dry dock and former RAF Saul, where aero engines were fitted to air-sea rescue launches in the Second World War, and it was time for a chat with the Clements’ son, Jared –  ‘Jay’ –  operational director of  English Holiday Cruises (01452 410411 or sales@englishholidaycruises.co.uk) who was busy making a promotional video.

Slimbridge founder Peter Scott Then on board again for a lunch-on-the-move of chicken salad with home-made onion rings followed by creme brulee as we headed back to the docks in the heart of Gloucester – timed to the second, like our departure, to negotiate both swing and lift bridges on the approach.

Time for goodbyes all round as skipper Nick spun the Elgin on its axis to moor up inch-perfect at Alexandra Quay, and the crew had all our luggage ready to disembark after we collected our cars from their paid-for slots on the nearby multi-storey.

It was goodbye and thanks to the boss as well – hands-on company chief Richard was soon on board to help make way for the afternoon arrivals for the next cruise down the canal.

I was sorely tempted to ask him if there was room for a couple more.

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David Graham

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