For the past couple of weeks I’ve been engaged in the one enterprise that experienced boaters never attempt - to be in a particular place by a particular time. And my Dutch barge Wiphala and I (with the help of a few unsuspecting friends), actually made it.
We had to get from just outside Bristol, where my home ‘mooring’ is, to a place called Sonning, midway between Reading and Henley on the River Thames. That’s roughly 90 miles, and it takes about two hours by car. You can multiply that by weeks for the barge.
The reason for this is not entirely, or even mainly, that the official speed limit is four miles an hour. Even that speed is hard to attain safely when your barge is half the width and almost all of the depth of the once-disused Kennet and Avon Canal, which runs, via Bath and Newbury, from Bristol to the River Thames at Reading.
There are, in addition, 107 locks, of which we had to do 106. For those of you who are unfamiliar with these things, they are the way canals go up or down hill, and they involve shifting enormous oak gates of great beauty but equal weight, winding up or lowering ‘paddles’ (sleuce gates), and mooring the barge three times, once at the entrance, once in the lock itself, and once at the exit. You also have to climb a slippery ladder from the boat to ground level, which can be as much as 20 feet up from or down into the dank depths of the lock.
Once you get the hang of it, and allowing for the fact that you regularly forget what is supposed to go up, what down, and in which order, each lock takes some 30 minutes to negotiate. So, for 106 locks, that’s the equivalent of a working week, plus overtime, spent entirely negotiating locks. At one point, just outside Devizes, there are 29 locks in the space of 2 miles, which takes a whole day
In addition, there are a couple of dozen swing bridges to be opened and closed, plus the inevitable technical hitches, like being blown into the shallows by a violent wind and pinned there, beached, for several hours, perhaps forever; or the throttle cable breaking and leaving you with no control over 34 tons of steel; or weeds choking the engine cooling system. All of this takes time to resolve, giving time a radically different value from the one I’m grown used to. There’s nothing for it but to slow down your body clock.
However, between (and also during) all this you are in another world of great natural beauty, over which, on hump-backed bridges, shiny, noisy things hurtle to no obviously sensible purpose at all. You pass through places like Honeystreet and Crofton that in the 18th and 19th centuries were the equivalent of motorway service stations and are now stranded hamlets; you sleep in silence amid fields of sheep beneath the stars. Even the periodic explosions of noise from the Brunel railway line that for much of its distance followed the route of the canal and killed it, are made more tolerable by the long spaces of utter peace between hurtling trains.
Doubtless those who once operated the ‘navigation’ (let alone those ‘navvies’ who laboured to construct it by hand) would have been be astonished to discover that the Kennet and Avon canal subsequently became the focus of a huge and largely voluntary effort to restore it to working condition, for the pure pleasure of using it. Gun emplacements still litter its course, perhaps in case Hitler, should he ever have decided to invade, might have found it convenient to negotiate 107 locks and proceed at a maximum four miles an hour from Reading to Bristol.
Now we humans who live on boats are decidedly part of the wildlife, and our encounters with humanity are often of a similar nature. When, triumphantly, we arrived at our destination, outside the Great House Hotel in Sonning on the Thames, my daughter was verbally abused by a aging hotel functionary who was clearly a graduate of the Basil Fawlty school of hospitality (‘no riff-raff here!’). I went to the hotel to remonstrate, but the man would only speak to me on the internal telephone. In a dignified huff we moored further down the river, outside the house of one Uri Geller (the bender of spoons and, reportedly, Michael Jackson’s best friend) which bristled with CCTV cameras (‘you are being filmed for your own protection’), a ‘Danger! Guard Dogs!’ notice and the flood-lighting of his entire vast garden at night.
As a result, on the eve of the wedding, for which we had planned a voyage for the bride (my much-loved niece), her ninety-year-old grandparents had to undertake a long hike to the barge, which they did at the kind of pace, and with the fortitude, that boating seemingly bestows on everyone.
Eventually we set off, some 18 of us, young and not-so-young, into as beautiful a scene as it is possible to conceive, bathed in the setting sun. Both the bride and the grandmother (she wearing my Stetson hat, acquired in Tombstone, Arizona) took the helm for a while, leaving me to worry about the risk of going down with all hands, which would have wiped out my entire close family.
Now, with the wedding, crazed dancing and drinking over, I have retired to the Thames and Kennet Marina, a floating park for plastic gin palaces and gleaming boats of all kinds, to do some running repairs and display Wiphala’s working wounds, acquired from all the bumps and scratches I have inflicted on her along the way, which she has endured without complaint.
Ahead of me lies the way back, which at this point is intimidating. But then, for perhaps the first time in my life, I do not have to be in any particular place by any particular time, at least that I know of. Whether it is sanity or insanity or the same old life in another guise that awaits me remains to be seen. Bits of all three would suit me just fine.
Why, I might even figure out what all this has got to do with the kinds of things you have every right to expect from a blog on the New Internationalist website; precisely the kinds of things I have been unable to connect with, technically, for the better part of the trip so far.