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15 October 2014
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Memories of a Canal Boater [J.Peters : Part 1]

by Bournemouth Libraries

Contributed by 
Bournemouth Libraries
People in story: 
Mrs Jean Peters
Location of story: 
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
13 May 2005

The train drew into Hayes station slowly jolted and shuffled to a standstill\ the carriage was so hot that with a feeling of relief I heaved and collected my gear and dumped it on the platform, wondering very much what was coming next. I wished that the little brown eyed man, who was the M.O.T. official, who had met me so efficiently at Waterloo to escort me across the whirl undergrounds; assuring me when the noise was slightly less than usual] that I was' especially lucky to have Miss Gayford as my trainer; was still with me to help me face this marvellous person. A brisk voice behind me asked to carry my kit bag, said its name was Miss Gayford ' Everyone calls me Kit'. That was over. The owner of the voice was slim and extremely vigorous aged about thirty five [this I afterwards found was too generous] black hair, gold earrings, muscular brown arms and legs, which I envied and hoped to emulate as soon as possible, a rosy weather-beaten brown face, long nose and a friendly smile, delightful green eyes. She was dressed in an old red frock with an open neck. We walked across Hayes Bridge to the other side of the ‘Cut’ where the Boats were lying. Oh magic words my inside throbbed violently with excitement and time so to speak stood still. Its a funny thing about Hayes but nearly always I have noticed that the sky seems to be covered with thin white cloud, the sort of cloud that makes a sunny afternoon chilly but still bright and Hayes bridge which is built of white stone, is very wide and seems to pick up the light of the sky and reflect it so that looking westwards it all seems like a river of light, across which if one happens to be there about five in the afternoon, the swarms of cyclists returning home to tea form a dark stream of people flowing against the current of light. Rather like Blake's River of Life. Though perhaps a rather far-fetched comparison.

We dumped my gear on board the motor Battersea and went off to find the food office about ration cards. On the way we met Kay. My first reaction was' My God' and so apparently was hers. Especially as we were to be cabin mates in the motor cabin, by far the smaller of the two cabins. One is apt to wonder what ones mate is going to be like.

Kay was middling height and seemed very blonde - with-a, very brown face, very blue eyes-very wide red mouth - an extremely short cotton print frock and most striking of all exceptionally pure white legs. I couldn’t think how this had happened and remember thinking rather idiotically perhaps she is one of those people that never tan all over. Her voice terrified me, it was sophisticated in the extreme, frightfully efficient and wordy. I sounded completely helpless the moment I opened my mouth and felt it. However when we got back, worse followed Miranda appeared from the butty cabin to put a pie the star in cupboard. She too was fair but not so fair, had long aristocratic features, ice blue eyes that gazed at me with no expression at all. At Kit’s introduction ' ah yes Hallo' and disappeared. Not encouraging. But very much, I thought, what I had expected and remembered Baker's remarks about tough women. Frightfully, frightfully you know with unexpected warmth.

Miranda was left on the butty, Kay was taken by Kit on the motor. I was given a piece of' Boater's Pie' to fill the increasing gap in my middle. It's very good 'Boater's Pie' either hot or cold and is much like Cornish Pasty made of mince and cold potato. I ate and listened to -them start the engine. Kit's engine was a dream to start, rarely needing more than a couple of turns with the crank before she would slip into gear and burst into a rhythmic powerful throb; it would vibrate through our little cabin, separated from the engineer room by only a thin partition, in a very definite way. Sometimes when we were tired and trying to get a rest at the end of a long day - it could be just hell. But then it was just exciting.

I got my things unpacked into the drawer and top cupboard which were mine, Then had a mighty struggle with my mattress getting it stowed away into the bed locker where Kay already had hers stowed. Hers however was small and blue and mine a mighty stripped thing that fought against imprisonment like a wild thing. I wondered if this had to be done everyday as I supposed it had, just how we were going to cope. I still wonder. The cabins of canal boats are, I think, feats of carpenters’ skill. There is everything one needs for a completely well supplied, if not comfortable existence in a space 'of 8ft by 6ft. The motor cabin is smaller than this, having the extra room taken up by the engine room. The final effect is that from the outside the butty appears to have less space than the motor. You descend from the false step, false because it is taken out to be scrubbed regularly and dried to pure whiteness on the cabin top on to the coal box. A triangular affair which fits under the step, its lid must always be spotless. On ones left is the stove slightly at an angle to give as much space as possible, it has an oven rarely used as such, usually for drying wood There is an open grate on which a lot of cooking is done in winter .It is customary to keep one's primus or oil stove on the left hand corner of the fire for extra cooking. The background to this corner is painted sax blue. The stove should be brilliantly polished. Then come the cupboards. The food cupboard with its arch shaped table forming its door and held at the top so that one lets it down for meals. Below this is a small cupboard in which saucepans may be kept. Adjacent to this one of the large drawers for clothes. Above this the locker for bedding, quite a deep affair, the front of which is at night' let down across the centre space of the cabin supported by the bench on the other side. Forming one of two beds and can if need be be used as a double one. Above the bed are two small lockers for small private possessions and toilet items. At the end of the butty cabin is a door leading into the annexe. A neat little stall place divided from the actual hold by a board partition and tarpaulin sheets. One keeps vegetables/brooms/oilskins in here. It's inclined to be troublesome, if the rain doesn’t get in the coal does and when they both get in together as not infrequently happens one is in for a hell of an afternoon spring-cleaning. '

Emerging once more from the annexe, observe our neat bookshelves and a hook for coats. The side-bed bench is about one and a half feet wide and runs completely down one side of the cabin. The drawer takes up the first half of it. Then comes what is commonly referred to as under the side bed. A large hollow space which one reaches through the top. The kindly carpenters having left several of the planks loose therein are kept shoes and other glory hole items. The far end of this space is partitioned off for the battery. These batteries last about a week giving a very good light. They are charged off the motor so one the advantages of motor cabin life is constant good light. Cups and jugs hang neatly on hooks along the cabin wall also hurricane lamps if one has them. It doesn’t seem to me that the space could be more neatly used. There are in addition a flap for the side bed which is raised at night and rested on the coal box and a wooden plank which goes across the bed space for a small extra seat. Beneath this if one is lucky one has a painted bread tin and somewhere hanging on a hook, its allotted space to cover two small ledges for pan and floor cleaning materials at the door end of the cabin and over the stove a lovely rose covered 'Arnbowl' or hand bowl in which all ones washing is done. The regulation issue for the G.V.C.C. are scarlet, lovely they look when new. But they can never compare in gaiety with the riot of flowers that cover the dark green surface of the hand painted ‘Arnbowl’ with their spotless white interior and the dainty castles painted on their bottoms for display when they are hung up. But this did not occur to me then. The cabins of the training boats were dingy and dark and very well worn. Nothing was very well polished - not that there was much to polish- it was hot and stuffy. So as soon as I could I changed my smart clothes and put on an ancient summer dress that had seen its best days harvesting and emerged on deck. To emerge from a cabin is the only way to describe it, the entrance is steep and narrow and awkward, especially on the motor where one has to avoid the gear handle and the steerer, who wants one out of the way as quickly as possible. The result is a series of bruises about ones shoulders for the first week; after which one becomes agile from necessity. We were on that occasion all set, that is we had our loading orders for London Docks and nothing to collect from the Depot. So in grand we sailed past the Depot, I can't remember anything about Hayes Corner ‘A famous and fateful spot’ then and on for the top of the locks where we were to tie for the night.
The run down to the docks was peaceful as there is no traffic on a Sunday evening. The water is good, one only has to slow down to pass lines of little bobbing pleasure boats that have been bedded down en route or long swaying herds of barges creaking and slamming each other in an elephantine manner; sometimes if badly tied swinging savagely out and snapping at ones heels. A snap from a twenty tonner is no joke. You creep past with a weather eye and scarce a ripple from your bows. "Little Rosie, Gert Winnie or Golden Girl gives a wild lurch, a groan and sinks back to eye you morosely and vengefully.

The evening was warm and lovely, the sunlight golden making kind the endless rows of little suburban houses and tiny gardens. The sweep of the golf links green and rich dotted with sheep and small figures moving slowly across the artificial hillocks in search of pleasure. I looked and looked and breathed the sunlight, felt my hair lift in the breeze and felt utterly indescribably alive, happy and free. The beat of the engine gets into ones blood and makes it race and we were moving too. Kit explained that the butty was short strapped on cross straps for travelling light and that my job was to stand at the long wooden tiller of the butty and if her stern got too near the bank I was to put the tiller in the direction I wanted her to go and swing her away. Easier done than said, thought .I and found out otherwise. Through some of the more gingery and difficult bridges she showed a surprising and alarming tendency to swing in from the motor right in under the curve of the bridge to the danger of life and limb not to mention the chimney and the water can. Both these articles are detachable in times of crisis, frequent in ones early days. One has to do a lot of chimney removing. We chugged steadily rhythmically and easily onward. After a while Kit sent Kay onto the butty and took me along the catwalk of planks laid along the cross beams of the boat which are level-*with the gun whale and therefore suspended about 4ft 9 ins above the bottom of the hold, to the fore end of the butty. The motor slowed down the butty bows slid forward level with her stern counter Kit jumped lightly down followed not so lightly by me.

The stern of the motor - sits down in the water when one is travelling light and her bows rise in comparison. Both boats have a draught of about four foot, nine inches when empty, no draught at all to speak of, so that the difference between loaded and empty boats is incredible. Especially to the steerer who has to see round her cratch when empty. The cratch is the wooden triangle at the bows which is the fore point of the sheeting up framework. Now, I began to wonder about my relationship with boats. Kit told me to sit on the cabin roof and I was terrified to realise that I had to walk round the gun whale which appeared to be about six inches wide and jump onto the cabin roof which has a depth of about three foot from the gun whale. God! I did it in a terrified way and thought eyeing the dark green swirling water slipping between my feet, what is going to happen if I miss it when I jump off. However that could wait, the view became suddenly breathtaking, we had left Suburbia behind and after miles of factories, warehouses and barges, suddenly rounded a long bend, there before us lay two huge gasometers, one camouflaged, one white and dazzling, a long curving white concrete edge of canal before we reached them/beyond which lay London at our feet. All the spires drifting smoke and the immensity of it. In the immediate foreground lay Paddington shunting yards. Someone murmured something about bombs and we looked at those snaking masses of rail, thinking how easily one well placed bomb could have finished them off or heavily disorganised them. Italian prisoners, the first I had seen, waved at us cheerily looking good in the dark green battledress they wear, some more dashing with red tam-o-shanters.

On we went, the warm summer breeze whipping the water into a semblance of those little grey green waves in Botticellis Venus. The clouds golden and warm above the golden haze of the distance it was all an Italian painting, gasometers included. We beat into their shadow and our world went dark-- on a little further, bridges and railways everywhere. Kit said we would soon be in the slum area. Tall buildings blank walls rose on either side of us, cans bobbed in the water and the grass on the banks went dead. The towpath had an evil look about it and the walls turned into houses with blind eyes and balconies that over hung the Cut. The dirt was incredible filthy curtains, filthy windows, carpets hanging over balconies and only odd scrawny scarlet geranium here and there to cheer things up. One old bald headed man with a shiny ruby red face and an incredibly fat belly, attired in his shirtsleeves and very unshaved, gave us a toothy grin. A sudden babble of yells rose from the other side of the Cut where bathing naked in the canal were a large crowd of youths, some swimming vigorously towards us others drying themselves round a large camp fire. I watched them curiously, the ones in the water looking exactly like seals their hair streaming over their faces. Their horse cries making little sense above the noise of the engine. They yelled and whistled until we disappeared, one or two others watched us pass or dived hurriedly into the water.

The canal widened and after a series of wide sprung bridges and a reach of canal far statelier in width than it's surroundings warranted and a particularly filthy stretch of flats known as 'Valentine's Row', we reached Paddington stop. Here, when loaded boats are gauged or tested to find out if their draught is the same as it was when the boats left the docks. When travelling empty you can if you wish collect water, but you have no luck with the office. It's a narrow place through which boats can go breasted up - but in any case one has to creep, as otherwise a tidal wave would submerge the company offices, a nasty jar for them! Just beyond the stop is a wide turn - you creep from under the bridge, swing widely through another narrow bridge and into the tunnel. As it was Sunday there's no need to enquire the 'Tug was coming through'.

On weekdays this is a ritual because every half hour or so a busy little tug collects the light barges going down and takes them through to the top of the locks and brings the loaded ones back up. We whistled through the engines suddenly alarmingly loud and hollow - the air, cold and clammy and the water ink like and slapping violently at the sides. We were out in a few moments - two more bends between towering warehouses; suddenly we were there 'The top of the locks' Camden Lock! We slowed down, Kit released the butty from its shorts straps — handed Miranda the cotton line with which she walked up to the bows climbed round the cratch slipped the noose and was ready to step calmly onto the butty bows as they slid past, do the same to her, the two boats swung together gently.

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