Mist is sitting low on the Shropshire Union as I climb clumsily aboard Owl with Ray, I am not as nifty of my feet as I imagined, listening to instruction but still hitting my head on the tiller almost immediately, Ray offers me a cup of tea and we are travelling in mini convoy, with another boat, Victory so up we can go up through the northgate locks with her. Previously, my experience of being on canal boats was pleasure cruises, afternoon drinking along little venice through Camden Locks, and more recently some armchair cruising in Great Canal Journey’s with Pru and Tim and of course John Sargent.
This is standing with one foot on the side, on a ledge, next to water’s edge, one foot at the stern, but far enough not to get in the way of the tiller. A missed step from the water. And there is a slight fear underfoot, hand holds to rails, not as confident and sure in my step as I thought. I wish that had not left my £4.99 phone in my pocket (though it would probably survive a dunking more than an eponymous iPhone). I am at home, near by, preferably, in water. I spent most of childhood falling into ponds, lakes, rivers, streams, turning purple and wrinkled in refusal to exit chilly coastal waters. If there is water, I want to gaze at it, then I want to get in it. Being on the man made made waterways is a different experience; water we control, almost, just underfoot, without the ripples and waves caused by tides, just creases and small peaks by motors and other boaters. Nervous at first, but unwilling to show by fear, confidence comes easily as we carry on our voyage. The small vibrations underfoot of the engine, ducking under branches, not holding on to rails but holding cup of tea ,close, for warmth, nonchalantly. Like a proper boater.
Despite the predicted weather expectancy of shorts and short sleeves, this is still well before 9am in the morning, and mist is still mooring. Wind flat across the water, poking into me and chaffing hands. Ray seems unbothered by this. And I know I am hardy, I’ve swam in the sea in February, I would rather be cold than warm, but this a cold that comes with movement, though we are going at less than 4 miles an hour (that would be my guess, and 4MPH is the speed limit in answer to my brummie taxi driver’s suggestion in the first blog). It really gets to your fingers. That cold.
At first we pass under bridge modern and old, the old factories of Ellesmere Port line the banks. Ray points out The Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company’s warehouse, or what’s left in skeletal structure of rusting red. You could put back it’s walls with your eyes, if you tried, the turning point for deliveries, drop off’s and going back around. I’ve known it, up to this point, as a new factory to walk to from Wolverhampton up to here (in terms of the stories I’ve picked up that have pricked up my ears, those workers walking in the 1900’s.) I’ve thought of it as a new life, walking from the black country, and here it is, a site to see.
On we putter on, conversation in the cold, me asking questions that demonstrate my ignorance to the subject in hand, Ray, patient and knowledgeable, me learning as I go. Owl is a 45 ft (a short boat) has 11 years until she can be a ‘historic boat’ (this may not be quite the correct term), I ask the difference between working boats and new boats. Rivets- working boats, Welding- new (not quite mass produced.… ) Behind us more boats in the distance as many of them canal away from the boat rally up back towards different destinations. And it’s easier to do it in pairs or together. Especially the north gate locks. Ray and I swap stories of work, and early docks made from people up in Camden (now where the Canal Museum there is). Living aboard, moored, sharing car parks with the ladies of the night from Kings Cross. A reminder that canals were born of industry and commerce, city to city byways, urban ports of call, their history and their depth all wrapped up in darker sides than site seeing quaint, smiling, gentle rides.
But it does slow you down. It slows me down, being on the boat. The aim in travel, is usually to get somewhere as quickly as possible, with as little disruption (or interaction) as possible. On a canal boat you wave to the walkers, dog walkers and the runners, (a father and son out for a bank holiday jog). See their faces. For young kids or parties of foreign exchange students, Ray sounded his whirling horn, to mixed reactions of confusion (the young lad in the pram) and cheers (exchange students). There was talk of being alone on a boat, steering while opening a flask of coffee. I am not qualified to hold the tiller, I don’t even attempt to ask whether I can have a go at steering (though you do not have to be licensed to hire a holiday boat which is where, it is obvious, some of the problems may stem). How if you’re boating alone, you come to make adjustments, a ways of doing things. ‘Learn from other people’s mistakes, don’t make them and then you can make mistake’s that are all your own’ is Ray’s philosophy around boating (although it was put more eloquently than that). More often than not there are two people on the boat, which helps if you are doing locks, steering, etc…But even on your own, it is not a lonely life, it seems you are never alone on the canals, people you know or don’t know helping out. It appeals to me, the idea of lone boating, my understanding of boating still lying in an idealised version projected by TV and whimsical musings. Ray came to canal boats by sailing young on the Norfolk Broads (chuckles of the mistakes he’s made in his youth), I ask him if he misses water, the boating when he’s away from it. Yes, absolutely, it’s usually not long 2,3 weeks before he gets withdrawal from the water. Spent most of winter on dry land with one things and another, and repairs to the boat. A welcome relief to be back on the water. In one of my not quite sure what I’m asking but I think I want an answer questions ‘do you think there is a draw to water, something..?’ And Ray says something about the feel of water and the lull. Calming.
It’s coming up to 10.30am, and I feel like I’ve had a day already (which is what happens when you get on a boat early in the morning) and I’ve been watching the canal tow path eying up how I could cycle along it, this in theory is my idea-live somewhere in Chester, while I am here and cycle to the museum every day. And back.
We are coming up to Northgate locks. Again, I was imagining me leaping on off boat, winding and unwinding the locks, with those things..the metal thing. Winding paddles. We are going up two boats at a time (Victory has gone ahead and we are going up with another-I can’t quite remember but I like to think it was Birmingham. A ship called Birmingham), up step locks. This really is my induction into how locks work, I never understood it when as a child I would ‘help’ open the locks in the canals near Watford. This is how the boats go uphill. Three locks going up in steps, levelling out the water, one lock at a time so the boats can climb up hill. This feat of engineering is a slow business, and opening a lock seems to be quite a lot of pressure. There is one boat coming down at the same time we are going up. A little ‘shufty’ is required. I am unsure whether this is official boat terminology or just a word for describing what is happening. I have to ask for help, to ensure I know what I’m doing, my focus is concentrated and everyone else is relaxed, looks like they’ve been doing it all their lives. There are mutterings of holiday boaters coming down not bothering to close off the lock, the people that I am with there seems to be an unspoken language of knowing what to do and when.
By the third lock I push it on my own. And I’ve slipped my winding paddle in my belt, like I’ve been doing it for years. Until the lock keeper suggests that I might lose it, if I keep it like that. An man with camera, mutters something to me about keeping up and jumping aboard before Ray has told me too. I tell him that I’ll listen to what my skipper says, unknowing if he is boaty person, or one to watch and comment. And people do stand and look, still and paused, taking pictures, watching, hearing the rushing of the water and the rise of the boats. Slowly, slowly, waiting to make a break and swing the lock back, and the boats to chug on through. A deep lock. I long to be onboard and looking up. A closeness to the rushing water.
It is a performance, mostly the people on the boats on and on the locks, eyes down to their audience, concentrating at the job in hand or talking amongst themselves in gestures I can’t quite read. Weary of the camera flashes and those who thinks it looks such fun. The effort, the movement gives me purpose, I like testing my own strength, and makes me feel I’ve earned my passage. Also that’s what Ray tells me. We go up a little further, up through Chester and it’s high walls, line gauged out into stone by years and years of rope rubbing from horse drawn boats. Sun coming through, people out by canal side cafe’s and pubs. And I am dropped off just four hours after I boarded, finding my feet on solid land again. I walk along side Ray and say my goodbye’s to a morning boating.
More to come, back on land with an introduction to the archives.