I wake to light shining in through port holes above my neat little bed in Amaryllis (I couldn’t, or didn’t have the energy to quite work out how to turn it into a double bed, despite watching all those small spaces of George Clarks’s). I have set my alarm early to enjoy my pretence of being a boater for an extra hour or so. Having a shower that is better than two of the B&B’s I’ve stayed in, boiling the kettle on the gas stove, hanging out my mud sodden socks, sitting in the bright sunshine at the stern of the boat, drinking my tea from a ‘life in the slow lane’ mug. I wave to boaters tackling the Beeston locks early, keeping up appearances that this might be my boat. Someone says something about narrow sides, I breathe in and I nod as if I know. Yes, I’ve been a (static) boater for about 15 hours. I wish I had more time aboard her, the compact and clever neatness appealing, somehow, to my usual scattershot manner of tidying (popping a throw over things). Jenny from the museum comes to collect my stuff to take it on to Chester, as I happily play at boat host. I’ve not much of a plan today, a mere 11 miles, returning to familiar turf by the outskirts of Chester. As I start this morning I’ve walked 71 miles. Or more if Map My Walk is to believed. An app that GPS’s and calculates your distance, although, by comparing mile stones on the toll path to screen shots of distance on my phone, it seems to add just under a quarter of mile to every one you walk. It’s the equivalent of someone telling you you’ve got further than you have in order to make you feel better. It doesn’t. I no longer know my distances.
* A picture digression or what I’ve been thinking about while I’ve walked*
In a breakdown of technology (aside from delated words and lack of 3 or 4g) my phone charger is on it’s last legs so my battery is precious (no mapping my walk) and my time is limited. Careful choice on where to shoot in images I wish to carry with me. I’m surprised how much I’ve used my phone on this journey, not in terms of contact, or a way to know where I am. On a canal. Probably The Shropshire Union. But as way in which to document as I go. Audio recording notes; conversations with myself, sound of water, the noise of my ankles deep in mud, my repeated congratulating of myself on picking up a stick. Typing out notes direct on my phone; things I’ve thought, people I’ve met, tangents that the act of walking can provide. Photograph’s, sometimes not reaching quick enough (or battery running low) for the professional camera pulling from my pocket instead my phone to mark a bridge, or a scene. In previous projects where I have done this kind of thing I used a notepad, a pen, a C90 dictaphone at some points, an old school film camera (as in non digital, I can’t even remember it’s analogue word) and a polaroid camera-a 10 or 12 year a go version of an instant picture. No filters, no retakes because the pose wasn’t right. And I was frugal with my images, careful in my shots because a 12 pack of polaroids would set you back twenty quid.
And now instant is in my pocket, a digital way to view, and delete. Snap as much as I can. Everything I carried in my art investigations of previous years now here in one device. I wonder what Tom Rolt might have made of all this technological advancement, everyone a documenter. With his notes and distain for some advancement, a longing for a simpler time. Nostalgia puts on it’s sepia tinted glasses and enjoys the pace.
Perhaps this makes us look less, capturing the images quickly to save and look at later. All though often we don’t, those pictures go into the roll of never being physical, floating around in a cloud to be looked at through a screen. By the end of this walk my phone will carry over 4,000 pictures, many more, duplicates or otherwise on a memory card in the camera. At some points along this walk I’ve frustrated myself by looking at everything through the digital frame. There were times I had to tell myself to stop trying to capture a moment, a scene and just enjoy it then. Now. The light just right, the breeze, the smell, the feel of stone, or wood, or iron. That pace. Life in the slow lane, as my mug said. That physical connection, finger prints, skin cells that have touched, footsteps that have walked, so back to the archive where this all began, the touch of the physical object, stored and passed through hands.
And the pictures that I carry with me, the ones whose scenes I line up some 30, 40, 50 years later, I call them archive pictures, themselves fraudulent manifestations of an image scanned, saved and re-printed out. Simulacrum. But as they are physical and not viewed on screen, because they have been shot in black and white film, or washed out colour (real vintage, not a filter) when I show them to people they are handled with care and weight. Those photographs that were snapped, as documentation of a holiday, a canal survey, posed and paused workers. And when I show them, offer them to people to hold, sometimes I do not tell them they are not the originals.
I try to stand where that photographer from 1959, or 1971, or 1899, might have stood. Tricky in some cases, as a lot of them seem to be taken from a boat. I lean as far as I can from the tow path to the centre of the cut.
I’ve written before that pictures do not give justice to some of the acts of engineering along this canal. They didn’t in the pictures that I used to mark my route before I walked towards them, and they didn’t in the pictures that I took to place myself in front of them. And of course, to demonstrate what I am writing of, I’ve added images to this particular post.
* This ends this digression (for now)*
The canal widens out, meandering and full, more river than I’ve seen it through town and deep cut. Willow trees dangle fingers in the water. I am told by a boater to watch out for a King Fisher, just around the corner. Stags lazing on the hills. And then Beeston Castle rising up in the distance on it’s protected hill, built in 1220, nearly 800 years old and a little further along the canal you can see its face off with another castle, a fakery in gothic style a mere 170 years of age. It never really had to fight off invaders and their weapons, a country house for a lord. And now a hotel and spa.
I’ve begun to give up on that Kingfisher, when I see a bolt of blue darting through tall reeds. It’s out of sorts, electric blue in all this greenery, almost unnatural. In all my years as part of The Young Ornithologists (YOC) I looked at them on posters and in pictures but never in the flesh. And I barley saw it now, the speed it flew. I didn’t capture him on camera, I had no time. Just time to see briefly. And I think of the Bluebird boat, water speed record, crashing and drowning on Lake Windermere (was it?). And I start to hear the traffic, somewhere on the wind, road bridges over head.
Flattened out with Beeston castle behind me I come I see a man combing hills with binoculars. Aware of the authority the camera gives to me, he smiles.
‘Buzzards, I’ve been looking to see one for 12 years, seen them up in the sky, you know far away but I’m always looking to see them closer up”
Long white haired, red bandana tied around his head, gold chain, etched skin. 12 years he’s been on the boat. Samuel Whispers, she’s called. 12 years looking for them buzzards. Originally from Berkshire, and thought if I can have as many friends there, I can have friends anywhere in the world. Travels between here and Tattenhall Marina. Scared himself last year, fell in Wardle lock and broke his hip. Hasn’t been able to do a lock since. Had a friend with him, mind. That was lucky. You know it, the lock and then one slip. He’ll get round to doing locks again, just needs to build his confidence up. He’s got all the time he can take. Talks of cold bloody winters when he first lived on a boat. Started in a November. And the prices, have gone up the moorings. All to do with London Moorings, the prices there. Can’t have discrimination. He tells me of boating along, a king fisher, same fella, darting along in front, blue light to lead the way. He reckons, but, he can’t be sure, that because the boat is disturbing the fish, the Kingfisher flies ahead to make his catch. How do they see the fish? Amazing. From under the water. He can’t even see these buzzards. With his binoculars.
I am envious of that life. Off grid of sorts. Danger in them locks, friends that you need to look after you. I could talk to him for hours, but onwards.
A huge marina, Tattenhall opposite some sort of plant. Light industry of sort. A broken pie for brunch that I’ve had stored in my bag since Audlem and I am quick in pace. No trees to line the banks, low bushes now, a road now running adjacent, buildings, houses, rising up now again. Pawprints frozen in once wet concrete in a resurfacing under a bridge. And a jogger, first I’ve really seen, in outfit and iphone ears. I must be nearing civilisation, it feels. The first since Nantwich. Planning a stop at The Cheshire Cat PH (a Vintage Inn, their menu’s known well to me), but I come to Egg Bridge. A bridge I had been looking forward too. No, really that is written without irony. Despite carrying pictures of over 100 bridges.
There’s a sign directing to me to Waverton village shop telling of delicious pastries and the like. Egg bridge in it’s origins built in 1770, rebuilt 167 years later in 1937 to hold the traffic as Waverton expanded. In a car park next to the canal a candy stripped portable barbers makes his trade. I buy a cheese and onion pasty from that village shop and return to sit by the canal as the ducks of Waverton quack in hunger towards me. I am saved by a bounding Labrador who scatters them like skittles, but still has a slacked jawed appreciation for my food. These are not the tentative ducks of mid shroppie who dive in domino formation to remove themselves from my path, these are ducks of confidence and entitlement that everything eaten on this path is their’s. A woman unloads a loaf of bread, pack of country webbed feet lions they devour it and roar for more. I leave them waddling to it. The jogger passes me back the other way. A nod. I’m slow paced to her pounding feet.
Past the pub where I would have had a duck free dinner. Lunch. Houses with moorings lining the other side of the canal, people out using the towpath as a passage, and just beyond Pepper Bridge the Earnest Butler Mill, the picture I have from the 1950’s showing the jutting out jetty that produce was lowered from down into the boats. Now this has been made into an architectural feature, long narrow windows that show, sitting rooms sitting over the canal. A tow path that is barley there for foliage in the fifties. Locks that I miss, that I can’t quite see the right position in. A little girl standing in 1959 watching a boater take her picture. A battered and leaning curved toll house. Further, closer to Chester, large houses, boat garages, another jogger doubling back on me. Coming into familiar territory in Chester. The Northgate locks where on the boating weekend in April, I worked these in my first attempt to understand the waterways. I’ve stopped to try to line up pictures when I get talking to a man wheeling his bike over the narrow bridge that crosses the locks. He know’s his stuff this man. We talk some more the history Chester, the history of the canals. Stories of his family moving from The Black Country to work at The Wolverhampton Iron Works. A chance meeting, at the end of a day, nearly the end of the week that circulates the stories that I am collecting.