Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.
We had signed up for one of the “theme nights” at “our” newly discovered local tea room “Kay’s” located in Willington — a small Derbyshire village about 20 minutes down the towpath from Mercia Marina where “Stardust” was to have her winter mooring. “Kay’s” is the epitome of a charming English tea room, run by three indefatigable and warm-hearted middle-aged sisters: Jackie, Sharon and Susie. On the Willington high street, the small white-walled shop is open seven days a week, come rain or shine or wind or sleet — or, it being England, all of the above in quick succession.
Kay’s is named for their fourth sister who died from a crippling spinal illness over forty years ago — her picture and a collection of tender and candid family photos, featuring Kay being happily wheeled about on various family outings, hang on the walls.
I think it was Mexican Night when the event in question took place — because I remember Susie appearing periodically in a serape and moustache and there was a decent quantity of excellent tequila at some point.
Valari and I had a small table in the corner — with the other tables occupied by a single woman, a couple, two other couples and, right behind us, a table of four very lively women of a certain age, including Sheila — one of the village matriarchs whose wheel-chair had been neatly tucked away in the next room.
For a long time conversation remained quiet and within the bounds of each table — to the extent that we thought: “how very British, clearly these are fine, friendly people, yet so restrained….”
But, imperceptibly, close quarters and good wine began to gently peel away the thin veneer of propriety and before long old friends were calling to and joshing each other across the room.
I was sitting closest to the next table and suddenly a very striking and handsome older woman with close cropped hair and a positively wicked gleam in her eye turned around and, addressing me calmly and directly, said (of her companions): “They’re weighing you up you know — that’s what they’re doing…” And then she turned away leaving me to ponder what exactly was included in this “weighing up” and to wonder what the result might be — especially if I was found wanting.
Before I had much time to consider my fate, Beryl, for that turned out to be her name, swivelled round again and said with that same challenging gleam: “I’ll bet it’s been a long time since you were weighed up…?”
Indeed! Well, this was more than could be passed off with a diffident “I suppose so” or “rather not I think” or some other feeble response. So, I picked up my trusty verbal racket and decided to send a scorcher straight down the centre line on Beryl’s side of the net.
“Well” I sipped my wine and responded slowly, keeping my eyes locked with hers, “it certainly has been a long time since I’ve been told that was what was going on…!” Whereupon their table erupted in gales of laughter and calls of“he’s got you now Beryl he does, he’s got you now!”
And from that point on we were no longer strangers and thereafter always passed the time and talked of walking and the weather whenever we met at Kay’s or out on the high street.
However, back to Mexican night — making a classic beginner’s mistake, we were among the first to leave Kay’s at about 10:30 and so missed the excitement of Beryl and company wheeling Sheila out the door and, in a moment of mysterious unsteadiness, almost dumping her out on the sidewalk — and me and my camera gone but moments ago….
It was a time of beginning to find our way into the life of this small English village where so many people have lived all their lives or had gone away only to return to Willington and its close, quiet life beside the Trent and Mersey Canal.
It was a time of laughter and the pleasant discovery of new friends in the making. Within weeks, though, our friendship with Sharon and Jackie and Susie and Beryl and Sheila and many others would dive quickly and deeply into the most intimate areas of loss and joy that life brings us.
A few days after Andrew’s suicide I went to Kay’s for a late lunch and, my face betraying too much, I could not help but tell what had happened. It was one of those moments where people either close up to you or their hearts open and, of course, they sat with me and heard the whole story and then began to talk of the loses in their own lives — the death of their mother and a close friend within a week, a husband’s suicide, the recent passing of a dear friend and, of course, the loss of their sister Kay; all those things that tear us open and say to us: “Look: I am Life and Death and I am Terrible and Beautiful!”
After that, these wonderful women were always there for me. In the same way as we hold a candle for someone stumbling darkness they knew just when to come over and share a cuppa with me or when they should just go on with work and let me slip alone into the Daily Mail, or, in real desperation, The Sun or the Mirror — and so be taken away and diverted for a few decadent minutes.
The winter days of the north Midlands shortened to almost nothing and the cold rain increased, but several times a week I, or we, were at Kay’s — where we knew people and where we were known. And, by the coming of spring, there was laughter now and again — as there must be inside a small refuge of friends within the vast landscape of all humanity — every one, sooner or later, touched by fire.
And, as our time to leave England approached, there was the final, memorable “Burns Night” at Kay’s — where Valari made the traditional “Address to the Haggis” and I had the high honor of plunging a large carving knife into the delicious steaming mass — and I think there was good whisky that night too…
Now we are back in Denver — drawn to help our families, touched anew by the ravening challenges of being human.
I miss each of the “Kay Sisters” every day. The home-made bread that Susie bakes and the soups and pies cooked by Sharon and Jackie are still, in my heart, only as far away as a short walk down the canal and into town for a bit of a natter with good friends.
“I feel like I’ve been in a bubble these last 15 years — the world has passed me by — and passed by these skills.”
While we talked, he deftly carved off any useful meat from the ribs of the lamb, put it in a container labeled “sausage” and then held the whole rib cage, now hardly more than bone, back into place on the rest of the carcass to show us exactly where it came from (I never found out why, but inside the cleaned and otherwise hollowed out body, the two glistening kidneys remained embedded.)
Wearing a chain mail meat-cutter’s gauntlet on his “holding hand” Rich, the butcher at Bettys Farm Shop (“Home to 24,000 Chickens”) worked and talked with complete ease behind the meat counter of the store just outside Willington. His knives were surprisingly small, but perfectly sharp and moved with a smooth swiftness that personified the Zen metaphor of effortlessly guiding the blade of awareness through the twists and turns of a joint — rather than laboriously and futility hacking away upon the bone of resistance.
I asked if there were apprentices or students coming along to preserve the skills of creating various cuts of meat? Rich said there were — but not enough: “Only two technical colleges in Britain specialize in teaching butchering — I mean, think of the expensive raw materials you need to practice on…” I had just been looking at a chalkboard that advertised rib eye steak at 27 Pounds per kilo.
“Mass production meat cutting houses employ lots of people. But, there, a man does only one specific step in the process — and so never grows to know the whole and it’s not very rewarding. It’s just a job.
“Besides” he went on: “cutting meat is dirty work, and hard work, and cold work — most don’t want it. It takes a certain type — just look at me” and he grins with the guileless pleasure of someone who simply loves what he does.
Rich is a solid, fortyish sort of man wearing his dark-striped apron over two shirts against the necessary cold of his vocation. “He’s not large, but probably does have just the right amount of subcutaneous fat” I thought later on…
I wanted to know where the meat was aged, so Rich put down his knife and motioned us to follow him back behind the counter.
“Come on then, come on — I’ll show you!” and we entered a bright, very clean, very cold room about 12 x 20 feet, with a fan-driven river of chilled air flowing ceaselessly past us — and past the neatly hung carcasses of three lambs, a couple of pigs, huge sides of beef (one of which Rich would occasionally slap or half hug with affection) as well as assorted smaller cuts and boxes of sausages.
“Right here! He announces with pride: “We keep the room at about zero degrees (Celsius) because that produces the perfect internal meat temperature of 1-3 degrees for aging”.
As fate would have it, it was in the cooler that Rich indeed warmed to his subject — about which he is endlessly and quite generously knowledgeable.
“Where does your meat come from?” we asked.
“Well” said Rich, “the lamb is from here (Betty’s Farm Shop Farm), the beef from the grounds of Calke Abbey, and the pork from a number of local suppliers — all meat coming through the Abattoir at Swadlingcote of course. He’s very good. It makes all the difference how an animal is killed — the more humane, the less stress and the less acid in the meat and the better the taste. That’s also why docile breeds produce the best meat — not running around excited and anxious all the time.”
No mention was being made of the 24,000 chickens right outside — so I assumed that the truly vast, keening and clucking flocks of poultry were mostly egg layers.
“Of course there’s the age of the animal too, right? You know” he reflected “mutton has a very bad, and undeserved reputation! Do you know why we are eating much more lamb than mutton now — when the opposite was true 50 years ago?
The more it SNOWS – tiddely pom…
“Because, back when wool paid well, farmers of course wanted to get in that second year of shearing, and so the animals came to slaughter at two years of age; the value of the wool exceeded the value of more tender meat.” Rich continued expansively….
Today we have “lamb” which is under one year old (before the lower teeth have fully come in) and “hogget”
— that’s lamb between one and two years old, and then of course “mutton” which is from two year-old animals with both upper and lower teeth in. Actually, an animal tastes better the older it is — up to a point — because, the older the animal, the less water in its muscle cells and it’s this water that you’re trying to get out in aging. After a couple of weeks look how dark and lovely this beef is…..and smell how it has that nice, nutty aroma!”
He holds up a very large thick slab — and we smell.
“And then, of course they didn’t cut the mutton right — did they now? There are, you know, three layers of fat — the subcutaneous- right under the skin, the inter-muscular between muscles, and the intra-muscular we call marbling. Well, a lazy butcher would cut his mutton too close to the skin and hair and so include fat that was filled with lanolin from the wool — that’s why bad mutton tastes like it does — you know…?
“Yes — that almost gagging oily, fatty flavor” I honestly recall — a childhood memory coming back unbidden
The more it GOES – tiddely pom
“Well….that’s why meat from “wool breeds” is best for the weavers, but not the butchers — we don’t like the hairy sheep, Scottish Highland and so on — less wool, less lanolin — right?
“Amazing” I say, — who knew?
On snowing. And nobody KNOWS — tiddely pom
“What gives meat its flavor is the fat — even more than the age. If I denuded every bit of fat from this lamb, the meat would all taste pretty much the same from all parts of the animal!
“Also,” Rich gives the beef a gentle smack: “after slaughter, meat must be cooled slowly — to no less than 10 degrees C after 10 hours — because, the when animal is killed the muscle fibers contract and the aging process, if done correctly, lets the muscle tissue relax — but, if meat is cooled too quickly right after slaughter, the muscles stay contracted — which means tough eating.”
I just can’t seem to stop myself from asking:
“So how long does it hang in here…?” my curiosity becoming tinged with incipient hypothermia.
“Twenty one to twenty four days — depending on the animal and the cut” he declares.
“Of course, a hundred years ago, they didn’t know all this science — the knowledge of how to raise, slaughter, cut, and age meat was passed from one generation of farmers and butchers to the next generation.”
How cold my TOES — tiddeley pom, are growing.
“Amazing” I stutter again — my vocabulary shrunken (and aged, I suppose) from the cold.
Rich stops and puts his arm around the side of beef. “Yeah” he says, nodding thoughtfully,
“It is amazing…”
The room was filled with kindness itself.
As we walked into Aldin’s Tea Rooms, a long, slender arm was quickly extended upward to me in greeting and I shook and held the smooth unresponsive hand of an older man who smiled back at me and silently pointed to his prominent lapel button. I leaned in for a closer look: “Ah — Her Majesty’s 60th Jubilee — very good!” I exclaimed. Someone else at the large round table of disabled customers and their caregivers asked: “Another pal of yours Charlie?”
We spotted the last vacant table across the room and made our way among the dozen or so other customers — sitting down with a view toward the corner entrance and, through large windows flanking either side, back into the street. But, for the next few minutes, no one entered or left the café.
The simple, almost cream-colored room was bright and alive with conversation and greetings between tables; small talk passed between the old woman next to us and the caregiver of a gentlemen in a blue jumper smiling unceasingly from his wheelchair — an open-mouthed smile framed by the small wooden pickets on either side that were the last of his teeth.
At the larger table, loud scrawking came from a tall gangly woman who then turned and looked me in the eye, and, making a stroking motion down her chin, gave a cheery, “thumbs up” approval of my beard.
Photography was out of the question in the same way it would be in the midst of communal prayer. Somehow, everyone in the room, including us, was aware and interacting with all the others. We were not invisible observers as often happens, but immediately became part of the moment; bathed in that special pleasure a friend once described by saying “it’s good to be among friends – even if they are not your friends…”
And, it was good, indeed.
For a little while, all things weary in mind or body were set free. We knew each other and were joined together by a look or a smile; a few words or a gesture. Forbearance and patience, hard-learned lessons and loneliness, healthy and crippled minds, ruined speech and broken bodies, laughter and silence — all rose up and made the air radiant with the everyday tenderness of simply being human together.
The woman next to us, her curled auburn hair thinning and wispy, watched quietly and acknowledged occasional “hellos” until she was served an impressive portion of beans on toast that, immediately, for me, will forever define the dish itself. Immediately she fell to, eating with earnest purpose and focus — her fork clutched from the left and knife unvarying from the right in proper British fashion. As the party on their morning outing from assisted living began to mobilize and depart, she stopped, looked up straight ahead and said quietly: “We must remember to be grateful.”
With the day-trip group leaving, we decided to move on as well. But I stopped briefly at her table to thank her for speaking of gratitude. Her name was Ann, and she replied: “Well! Some countries don’t take care of their people — do they now?” and then talked quickly on with clarity and softness of her sister who had had two “normal” children and two “disabled” children – all within 5 years of each other. “Both were blind. The poor dears had to wear helmets because they would hurt themselves. It was terrible to see how they frightened the other children whose parents did not help them understand. Chrissie died when she was nine, Robert I think so too…”
I asked Ann if the group before us came here often and she said they did, but they also went other places: “to give the people a variety of outings. I think there is a home or places nearby where they live…”
By this time additional wheelchairs had been retrieved, everyone accounted for and safely maneuvered out the door or guided along with a loving hand carefully threaded through the unsteady arm.
Just as we moved to the door, a small, round-faced and perfectly dressed finch-like woman came in, sat down primly close to the entrance and the character of the shop and the associations of all present began taking a new form. By the time we were out again under the low grey sky of Market Harborough, “our” Aldin’s was a different place and time altogether.
The luminous moment now remains only in my heart — but for that moment I am, mindful of Ann’s words, very grateful.
Today we happened upon a small cafe-type restaurant in Atherstone, Staffordshire called “The Larder” — a simple store-front converted into a restaurant with an unusual theme: the life of sacrifice (that included food) experienced by most of the British during WWII. The walls are covered with old food and petrol ration cards, original and reproduced propaganda posters about Victory Gardens and so forth — while in the background play speeches by Neville Chamberlain, and then Churchill, mixed with “In the Mood” and other period songs. The two female servers dress in period costume as well – one in tan work overalls and the other in a ruffled frock that somehow reminded me of my mother. The menu included, but was not limited to, wartime “dishes” such as Spam Fritters and Beans – which I immediately ordered — only to find, alas, that they had run out of Spam and I had to settle for local “Bangers in a Bun”.
So, it is probably understandable that, initially, we mistook the eye-popping entrance of a nattily dressed older man as the arrival of some additional member of the staff. But it turned out that “Peter” was just one of the regulars at The Larder – but a regular loved by all it was clear. He was dressed to perfection in a grey hat, striped jacket, blue trousers with turquoise socks and a well-knotted tie and handkerchief of matching color, finished off by perfect accents in his pale blue shirt. Valari got to the camera first and began quietly shooting as he fiddled with his half-hunter pocket watch and ordered a coffee.
Peter was visual richness itself – the clothes notwithstanding, there was a true sparkle in his eyes that seemed to radiate life and intelligence and that; a gleam that somehow made sense of the large but subtle diamond ring and the aging tattoos on his wrists and above the second knuckle of each finger.
It wasn’t long before he called out in our direction: “Do I detect a trans-Atlantic accent…?” and so began a long conversation, first across the restaurant — then I took my tea over to his table and we really started in. I commented that my wife and I are both photographers and so immediately had noticed his exuberant taste in clothes — to which he responded: “It is deliberate and in a little while I will tell you in what manner it is deliberate” indicating his hat and tie.
Then began the warp and woof of a lifetime of stories including: the first anniversary of the death of his wife of 30 years and his real loss of her to Alzheimer’s over four years ago; stories about Peter’s past (born in Canada, son of an aristocrat who had run off with his mother — a domestic servant on the family estate); the British Army in Malaysia at age 18; continuing “work” in places such as Australia, South Africa, Egypt and South Yemen. “Work” that, he quietly implies, remains largely shrouded in the Official Secrets Act.
But, always the emerging narrative pattern circles back to accounts of the real and present joy in Peter’s life at age 83. “You know what happens when you dress like this? he asked. “Women notice you. In fact, they are positively enchanted by you. Therefore, I dress like this because it attracts interest — and besides it helps me do things that would get a younger chap slapped silly”.
“Such as…?” I query, genuinely almost scandalized.
“Well”, says Peter, “Let’s say that I am charmed by a young lady sales clerk who concludes our business by asking if there is anything else I would like? And I say “only your phone number”. And you know, more often than not, I get it! Then, perhaps she and I have coffee and perhaps I ask the lady if we can meet again and she says “yes” and so I suggest a short train ride, just 25 miles or so, to a town with a very fine Italian restaurant where she and I could have panna cotta – how can she resist?
I remarked that old-fashioned manners and respect appeared to also be part of his charm and success.
“Of course. When I was young and learning “the facts of life” my mother told me: “Peter, when you go looking for a lady friend or a wife, remember that what women most want, whether they will tell you or not, is kindness.”
“And, I find this approach does very well with women in the range of 19 to 46.” Peter is speaking specifically here because his current “friends” include 19 year-old in Leicester and a 46 year-old in Birmingham. “Yes”, he mused “very attractive women at that…”
“And that is why the way I dress is deliberate. After all,” Peter concluded: If you’re going back into the orchard at my age — why on earth would you not pick the very best and sweetest of the apples…?”
With that, Peter graciously paid for all our lunches, picked up his silver topped cane and stepped back onto the high street.
There is an unwritten code of proper conduct among canal folk. Actually, most real canal folk would not have anything to do with a “code of conduct”. What they would say is simply :”we look out for each other.”
Part of that looking out is a sense of courtesy melded with practicality. For example, if I lose my temper at your hitting my boat and tell you to “sod off”, then we both know that things will be awkward the next time we share a lock — and we both know that, things being as they are, we will at some time share a lock again. So, I keep my mouth shut.
One of these practical courtesies is: in a flight of closely located locks, you watch who is coming down and who going up so that things work most efficiently for everyone; if two boats are coming up a flight and two going down, the tiller-persons of each pair watch the other pair and work to make it easy for the downward pair to enter the locks you are leaving and for the upward pair to cross in the water in between (the “pound”) and enter the now vacant locks.
Last week we were engaged in just such elementary manoeuvres at the Hillmortin flight of three locks– arranged in pairs of two side-by-side. I had gone ahead to the second set of locks to get ready for our boat and my son-in-law’s boat to make the above mentioned cross-over. Well. No sooner did I get there than I realise that one boat is draining their lock in preparation to moving into the no-man’s land of the pound and so allowing another boat to begin locking down out of sequence. I know it sounds complicated, but, trust me, it’s like in a square dance — what would it be like if one person randomly decided to skip ahead to a different partner — no matter that the other had a partner already?
So, I said to the guilty woman draining her lock: “do you not see that there are a pair of boats coming up?” “Oh yes” says she “I sees them, but they’s takin too long so I say “bugger that” and off we go.”
Alas, ever trying to be the calming influence, I went on without a word and began to prepare the other lock for our boat. Unfortunately I did comment to a fellow at the lock gate that I was at a loss to explain why that woman had jumped the queue, as it were, and made life difficult for everyone.
The gentleman, who much resembled a fire-plug after a nice week in Majorca, rounds on me and shouts: “Are ye ‘avin a go at me missus?” while at the same time stumping forward in a menacing manner that had me trying to recall the last time I was actually hit in the face.
Suddenly, grasping the relationship between thoughtless twit and fire plug — I hastily said: “No, no, I was just asking if she was aware that other boats are coming up.”
Unassuaged, my oil on the waters was met with a pit-bull growl as the fire plug advanced and thrust his jaw forward somewhere down near my sternum.
Fortunately, at that moment the plug’s “missus” called to him that he “damn well better get on the boat if he didn’t fancy walking…”. And so the confrontation was diverted by necessity. Blessed necessity.
I expect this sounds a bit arcane to the non-canal world. But, as I said, it was all just a square dance, albeit among 20 ton boats, that went wrong — and almost came to blows over my simply trying to be helpful…
A few months ago I wrote briefly about our encounter with an old (circa 1937) seventy-foot working boat still on the canals — now selling diesel, propane and solid fuel to clients between Milton Keynes and Marswoth. The boat “Towcester” (pronounced “toaster”) is owned by Jules and her husband Richard, the business being: “Jules’ Fuels”. The Towcester has a classic two-cylinder Lister diesel engine, which makes an impossible-not-to-love shucka-puppa-schuka-puppa sound as it moves along the water.
Well, last night, who should come along and moor just ahead of us but Jules and Richard and their dog “Jesse” on Towcester. They spotted us as they were coming in and asked cheekily if dinner was ready — I shot back, “of course — and the recommended wine tonight is a nice Chablis!”
When Towcester was secured to the bank, I went over to chat and Valari surprised all of us by coming out with two glasses of Chablis for Jules and Richard. So, we sat and talked for some about the sorry state of the world, the pleasures of the canal, the joys of growing older and how Jules and Richard came to be in this particular business. It turns out that Jules was born in the famous canal town of Stoke Bruerne, has loved boats all her life and has been living on working boats since she was thirteen. Richard has been on the cut since 1990, and so is a relative new-comer.
Now in her fifties, Jules has owned Towcester twice. As a girl, it had always her dream to own this specific boat as she watched it pass through Stoke Bruerne. She finally was able to buy the boat as a young woman — later lost it in a divorce, then found and bought it again several years ago. Recently she had the original Lister engine completely restored — and it is a thing of beauty.
I was sitting on Towcester’s stern, admiring their boatman’s cabin, with the two metal wheels that control the engine just above my head, when I said, almost to myself: “it must be amazing to operate a boat like this…” Richard replied: “Well, come along when we start off tomorrow and you can give it a try!”
So, this morning at about 8, under a pleasantly overcast sky and cool temperatures, Jules said, “Alright — take the stick and let’s move off”. Standing in the trad stern hatch, I clunked the left hand wheel a quarter turn anti-clockwise (putting the boat into forward gear) and gave the right hand throttle wheel a light spin or two. The Lister sped up making its glorious sound as we pulled away from the bank — with Valari on the towpath taking photos of The Departure.
As instructed, I kept Towcester dead centre in the channel — because it draws three feet of water and, whatever happened, I was determined that we would not end up on a sand bank while I was entrusted with the boat.
Stops were made to sell diesel to The Cheese Boat and deliver over a half ton of coal to live-aboard boats, including a retired couple on “Papillion”. Jules would take the tiller briefly to execute delicate manoeuvres coming along-side, but as we went along, I took some of this on too. I was alternately introduced to the customers as “the man in charge of coal-sack quality control” or “our Yank apprentice”.
While Jules sent texts to long-standing customers to let them know we were in the area, Richard and I talked about the many and varied aspects of boat life past and present, his happiness in marriage with Jules, and bits of many other topics – all punctuated with occasional directions based on the nature of the channel and bridges coming up, “Try to take a line to a bridge-hole that gets your bow visible as soon as possible to any boats that might be coming the other way”, or, “don’t cut this corner — it’s deceptively shallow right there” or “watch the branches as we come in here — if we scratch the brass work on Jules’ chimney we’ll both never hear the end of it…!”.
Jules is truly a woman of the cut. She has spent her entire life on or within 2-3 miles of the canals. Richard spoke with endearing compassion of how, when they must take the car out to shop or deliver coal to a non-canal customer “Jules’ whole face and body become a rigid expression of unhappiness — it still startles me. But, as soon as we are back on the boat, she is immediately alive and smiling again.”
The most pleasing part of the trip was, of course, taking Towcester through the flight of three locks at Soulbury — and there we said our goodbyes until next time and I walked the 3 1/2 miles back to Stardust.
In trying to explain the experience to Valari, the best I could do was to say that it was an opportunity to briefly stop observing and actually step into the living history of the canals that Jules and Richard and “toaster” represent.
Last night we were invited to a barbecue being put on this evening by another couple we have met here and there along the cut. So, after getting back from time with Towcester, I went down the tow path to see what might be needed that we could bring. It turns out that the invitation must have been issued in an alcohol-fueled moment of now (completely) forgotten bon ami, as there were no chairs or place settings for us. But, that’s another story…
Well, it was bound to happen — after arriving for the coldest March in recorded history we are now “basking” (as The Times says) in record summer heat, meaning: mid to upper 80’s F.
So, a daily ritual has been to locate and buy a bag of ice each afternoon for cold evening drinks on the boat. This was easy in Berkhampsted with a supermarket just a block away, but today was different. We moored near Gebe Canal Cruises that offers day hire boats for locals and has a shop where you can buy nautical caps that say “Captain”. Operated by “Collin” and his wife and teenage son, Gebe also runs a cafe where I went in hopes of ice.
I approached the teenage lad at the counter and asked if I could buy some ice. He said: “No — but I’ll give you some!” and reached into the cooler to find that there was none left. Mum came by about this time and said the nearest place to buy ice was “Marsdon’s” market in the nearby town of Pitsdon: “left out the drive, left under the rail bridge, then carry on for about twenty minutes”. She had forgotten the bit about “left again at the roundabout”, but I’m beginning to sort out the English way of giving directions…
I arrived at Marsdon’s, bought ice and let them know I had been sent their way by Collin — and was asked therefore to give him their hellos on the way back.
Stumping again through Pitsdon I crossed paths with the mere slip of an old woman looking very fine indeed in her white summer dress and pale yellow straw hat. We exchanged greetings with hers being a heartfelt “lovely day..!” and my replying “Oh yes, a bit hot, but lovely.” “Well” she replied,”we English are never happy, it’s either too hot or too cold or too windy or not.” I agreed, and added that I thought all people were like that: “it’s a common misery we can share with each other…” she laughed a slip of a laugh and we went each our own way.
I stopped by the hire boat company to drop off the ice I had bought for them and the teenage lad said: “whoy’d yah doo thaht?”. I told him that his earlier offer of free ice had been an Act of Kindness and, as such, should be returned in kind. Collin was off somewhere by then so I came back to the boat.
The iced tea — and later iced wine — tasted all the finer for the walk.
On Tuesday I took the Great Western train out west to visit my old friend Hilda B who lives in Somerton, Somerset. Unfortunatey, Somerton’s rail stop was eliminated many years ago and so the closest station is Castle Cary and from their you take a cab or bus.
Going at this time of year required navigating around the enormous Glastonbury Festival (which actually takes place in Pilton) for which Castle Cary is the closest train connection. By Tuesday the tsunami of rock fans had largely passed through leaving only a few dozen stragglers at the station.
I first met Hilda in 1985 — the year a small group of us Boulderites bought a holiday cottage in Somerton. At that time Hilda was just moving out of the thatched cottage in nearby Compton-Dundon where she had lived for many years, and into Council housing in the same village. Three years ago Hilda moved into Somerton and has now been in the same area 55 years.
Formerly a nurse in the town of Street, two miles north, Hilda’s life has since been a gradually slowing mix of gardening, visits from her son Julian in Devon and reading and needlework in the winter.
In talking of her various houses, she recalled the time as a little girl when the family lived near Bristol in another thatched dwelling. For the first time, the street outside was being paved and the equipment included an immense steam-roller which was, at that time, actually powered by a steam engine that threw out masses of smoke and sparks. Hilda’s jog was to perch on the roof top and sweep off any sparks that threatened to ignite the thatch. “Very nice thatch is” she said: “Cool in the summer and warm in the winter.”
Our conversation sparkled and wound through everything from The Rolling Stones to her parents life “in service”. Until her death, Hilda’s mother had been lady’s maid to Alice Clarke, of the shoe family in Street.
After a lovely lunch at the Lime Kiln Pub, we had tea at her cosy Council cottage and then it was goodbye and back to London. As I was leaving she said “So lovely to see you. I don’t think of you very often — but I do think…. I mean of you…”
It is so interesting where we find anchors in this wide world.
Beside the wind-rippled greenish water of the old canal, at the center of Europe’s largest city, a Grey Heron has followed the canal in from the Middlesex countryside sixteen miles away. Last night, from the stern of our boat in Paddington Basin, I watched this quiet professor of fish hunt in the glom of late evening.
Overall, this is a delicate and elegant bird — looking as if it were clothed in a trim, close fitting mourning coat. However, up close, one can see a telltale wisp of black feathers dropping down along the back of its head creating the absurd impression of an eccentric professor or vain maestro with one last pathetic length of black hair swept back and down.
The Grey Heron is a shallow-water fisher, tall with long yellow-orange legs, a compact oval grey-blue body and, of course, a long powerful neck and extended beak that resembles a forked spear when open. With a head no wider than its neck — presumably for a swifter strike into the water — the unsettling effect of a headless bird is created when it turns to look directly at me in the almost night.
On many evenings the heron come to hunt at London’s Paddington Basin, which is not round, as its name night suggest, but in reality a rectangular channel angling down from Little Venice – the termination of the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal. Narrowboats and wide-beams line the edges of the basin, followed by a modern cobbled walkway and then sheer steel and glass commercial and residential buildings ring the water; reflected in it day and night.
Successfully camouflaged amid the blue glass and the darker blue of the day’s last sky shimmering in water, the heron finds its place. Almost beside our boat, between two mooring pontoons, is a walkway and steel pedestrian bridge with an unseen cement support beam a few inches below the water’s surface. Stalking this invisible path, the heron takes up its work – very, very slowly pacing the beam — its entire body a poised expression of focused observation and meticulous stealth.
Often not moving at all for a minute or two, the bird searches back and forth with a halting but impeccable grace; step….step….step….wait! Step…step…wait…step… lifting each individual leg and placing it down with almost unbearable care and slowness. Then a pause with the neck coiled back in a Swan-like “S”. Then, SNICK — the beak, in and out of the water in less than an instant, followed by something toothsome descending a long feathered gullet.
Meanwhile several people have passed over the metal bridge, their steps clearly tapping or clumping along, faces glowing in the light of their Screens, oblivious to the bird — absorbed into the rapt pleasure of his hunt only a few feet away.
Most of the kills are swift and ordinary, but moments of great drama come when the coup de grace is accomplished as the lanky bird sets its feet a little wider and leans out several inches off center to make a “catch” — every bit like a baseball short-stop, fearlessly off balance, hauling in a fast ground-level ball in the gap between first and second.
Finally, as the tension begins to ease and the last of the evening leaks away into night, the heron is discovered and briefly attacked by a flashing white seagull — threatened by a competitor’s superior skills.
The basin, until now a study in distant muted city-sounds, erupts into a grating verbal war of “kee” kee” kee” from the swooping gull — with each dive met by a resentful hissing “Geraawk! Geraawkkk!” from the now almost invisible heron who soon peevishly takes flight – to become a new wonderful airborne version of itself – legs perfectly trailing, straight neck, sleek body and wings silhouetted against the sky, turning, rising again, turning again, lifted into darkness on extended wings.
After dominating inland trade from about 1790 to 1840, the canals as a means of commercial transport were gradally eclipsed by the railroads until most boat traffic had ceased by the 1930’s. Almost all working boats have now disappeared from the cut as it is called, with some few remaining to haul gravel or sand mostly over short runs. However, the rise in “leisure boating” has brought some of the old 70′ working boats back into service as travelling vendors of fuel of many varieties — coal for stoves, propane for “cookers” and diesel for engines. These fuel boats generally work a certain stretch of a particular canal and have regular customers among those live-aboards with long term moorings. Or, as in our case, you hail a boat when we see it coming and need fuel. This particular boat travels back and forth on the Grand Union Canal from Berkhampsted to Leighton Buzzard (about 20 miles).
We’ve bought diesel from this crew three times now, and so know each other by sight — and there’s now a bit of joshing — they will laugh (and make faces) and say that they will sell to Americans, but, had we been Australian, that would have been a different matter entirely….. The man making faces did so because Valari had sincerely said he looked hard working — and that was too much for him to stand for what with his mates there and all.
Today we saw the boat coming up the canal our way and waved it over. We were just about to leave a lock, so the fuel mongers told us to stay in the lock to make coming alongside easier. No boats were coming either way and this worked very well (usually the boats need to be tied together mid-canal with someone on the fuel boat keeping both craft aligned with the cut and out of shallow water).
We took on 100 litres of “red diesel” (half our capacity) and the JCC fuel boat continued along toward Leighton Buzzard as we pulled over and moored up just below a renown pub in Marsworth.
It’s a good life.