Two Weeks on the English Canals
A Journal of Recollections
July 20th, 2002
The food tasted good. The potato skins, topped with mushrooms and cheese, were washed down by golden brew, providing a welcome reprieve from the hassles of the earlier day. The pleasant ambiance of the New Inn Pub at Buckby wharf seemed a good omen and an appropriate start for the coming two weeks. The earlier day had been harassed by the not surprising difficulties of a disparate group of people trying to come together at an appointed time in the world's busiest airport halfway around the planet from their starting place. Despite the challenges of Heathrow and our misinterpretation of instructions, our confused paths finally intersected that of Tom Lewis: shanty singer, songwriter, and our group leader. We were escorted to the 15-passenger van, which would travel with us, accompanying the boats, for the entire two weeks. The large vehicle was almost full of canal neophytes by now and introductions were made all around. We picked up one more crewmember and we were away. An hour or so on the freeway had brought us to this fine and pleasant pub for lunch. A brief shower ended and the friendly sun returned, warming us as we ate outside by the canal lock. A pair of brightly painted narrowboats languidly descended as the water in the lock drained through the lower sluices. Lyn and Tom seized the opportunity to point out a few of the basic steps of lock navigation included the opening and closing of the sluice gates (paddles) and of the huge counter-weighted lock gates. All the steps needed to be done quickly, efficiently, and in precisely the correct sequence. By the end of the coming two weeks, we would become two teams of well-oiled and canal-conquering machines …er…well, perhaps at least better at it than when we started.
For a demonstration of how a canal lock works, click the link below
Fed and watered, we climbed back into the van. Soon the huge pit of Judkin's quarry gaped to my left. It was already a lake, seepage and rainwater hiding the bottom of the giant pit and forming a surface far below the level of our winding road. A few more bends and twists and we emerged into the parking lot of Valley Cruises.
The office and gift shop were located in a traditional two story brick building. A number of cream-yellow narrowboats were moored in the adjacent marina. Two of them were the Tame Valley and the Weaver Valley, our homes for the coming fortnight. Last minute glitches in cabin assignments were remedied and we stowed our gear. After a short lecture on narrowboat safety and operation, we were quickly out on the canal.
Driving a narrowboat is a very interesting and different experience. The craft is 7 feet wide, 70 feet long, makes very wide turns, and doesn't respond quickly. The perspective is that of steering a small supertanker up a narrow river. The typical narrowboat is equipped with a tiller, not a wheel, so some experience is needed for steering to become automatic.
The canals are shallow, often four feet or less, and running aground in the soft silt that covers the bottom and deepens along the banks can be common but usually unexciting. When this happens, speed slowly decreases even though engine RPMs remain constant. Eventually, the boat may even stop altogether, the propeller churning the water and mud and a puzzled neophyte at the tiller wondering why the boat won't move. The simple solution is to put the engine in reverse and back into deeper water. Occasionally an assisting push against a canal bank is helpful from one of the poles usually carried on the roof of a narrowboat.
As our two boats puttered down the canal we soon found ourselves deep within a green and watery world. As the banks of the waterway passed by at three miles per hour, canal-side trees stretched their branches above us and we became enclosed by a green canopy. We traveled within a verdant tunnel which isolated us from the complications of a harried world.
Trees periodically yielded to the neat brick homes and trim backyards of canal-side residents. Soon we passed by one of the local people feeding bread to a mother swan and her seven cygnets. Clumsy and scruffy gray, the young birds did indeed look like oversize ugly ducklings, but like many of the youngest animals, their awkwardness only added to their charm as they scrambled for the offerings.
"Are they yours?" one of us cheerfully queried.
"Why no, all swans are property of the Queen," was the prompt reply. Additional research indicated that this is not strictly correct, but is still a very commonly held belief. The argument may be moot. Perhaps, if the people of a democratic society believe that the swans belong to the Queen, then indeed they belong to the Queen.
Two hours of this idyllic travel brought us to our first nightly mooring, Hawkesbury Junction. This important intersection is a busy canal center and always has been, every since the canal building boom of the early 19th century. There were numerous narrowboats moored along the canal sides surrounding this major intersection. Still, we found a place to tie up just a five-minute walk from the canal-side Greyhound Pub. The pub was fascinating, the interior decorated with canal memorabilia and an impressive collection of Toby jugs, which are ale jugs, often antique, which have a "sculpture" of a person on the side opposite the handle.
After we were all settled in, food ordered and drinks in hand, Tom presented us with ceramic medallions tied with red ribbon. "Float the Festival-Warwick 2002" was on the face and on the back was a first name. Each of us received the appropriate medallion with our name on the back. Not only would these be treasured souvenirs but would also serve as gate passes to some of the musical events that Tom and Lyn had prepared for us.
That night, as we settled into our small but comfortable bunks, I could feel the boat gently rocking. Although the motion was barely there, it brought back a pleasant sensation from college-age youth, a time when I had spent an amazing three months on an ocean-going student ship. Sleep came easily that night, unusual for a first night in a new environment, but I felt as though I had slept there before.
Entering a Lock
Sara pushes on a balance beam to open a lock door
The Greyhound Pub at Hawkesbury Junction
The Medallion--Float to the Festival 2002
Photo by Sara
Click here for the sound of our deisel as we putted down the canals