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Memories of a Canal Boater [J.Peters : Part 6]

by Bournemouth Libraries

Contributed by 
Bournemouth Libraries
People in story: 
Mrs Jean Peters
Location of story: 
Hayes
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A4060559
Contributed on: 
13 May 2005

Wendy’s white blank face reproached for my disloyalty — but as she hated me bitterly now, there seemed to be no sense anywhere. At the bottom of Saltby locks, we had to wait, Wendy and I on the butty. Unable to bear her blank scrutiny any longer, I made to leap on the roof to go and see what was happening. But she seized my arm with an unknown strength and threw me into the hatches. She had her steel windlass, which she fingered while she looked at me. “You’re afraid aren’t you!”. I was so glad the boats moved on then! Kit and Wendy went to the doctor. We felt unable to take the responsibility for what she might do to herself or to us and Kit was determined she should go home. She phoned the G.U.C.C. Depot for advice. The depot were stupid in the extreme and said impossible bring her back. Kit was furious and decided to wire her parents and make the arrangements herself, which she did. That night Wendy talked in her sleep and when she woke asked Kit “If it wasn’t nice to be under the sea?” Kit said that was enough. They went up to London the same day. It was breezy — the clouds flying. Wendy went quietly with Kit and without a backward look. I don’t think she had any idea what was happening. Vera had gone to see her father the evening before and I was alone. I spent the whole day washing. The wind was so strong it shipped my washing up bowl into the Cut behind my back. I don’t think I have ever been so tired in my life — I spent the day feeling as if I was sleep walking. Kit and Vera came back in the evening and we tried to sort things out, the why’s and wherefors. There didn’t seem to be any. Although references by Wendy to an engagement to Billie made us suspicious. It was all to quote Miranda’s pet phrase “so fantastic”. We went on to talk about lesbianism on the Cut and I discovered that it was considered an ideal occupation for lesbians. The only trouble being that the odd numbers of the crews made for jealousy. I began to understand veiled hints about a number of the people I had met and to wonder about everyone with an uncertain shiver. However, people can’t help their make-up. I decided so long as they left me alone it didn’t matter. The rest of the trip began in a very light-hearted manner. We sailed gaily along the Bottom Road in two days without sticking once, our backs ached with the butty pulling, but anything practical and real was such a relief that we worked like demons. Kit appeared once looking so much like a drawing by “Geo M” from Punch, that I collapsed with merriment. It was very cold and she was glad in a balaclava, a three quarter length leather jerkin, a pair of slacks tucked into her boots complete with belt and windlass. Not to mention the 40ft Shaft she was carrying over one shoulder! Perfect! We loaded at Bedworth. A very dirty little back alley of a loading place. Vera went out one night. I did my washing. I pegged it out and for some reason as I walked back along the gunwale turned round to see if it was all secure. I had a strange sinking sensation and suddenly a complete shock as the oily water closed over my head. I came up spluttering and was fished out by Kit with a bit of cotton line round my bottom. We laughed weakly but the pair behind us roared. I thanked my lucky stars I had hung out my washing first and wiped the oily water off giggling helplessly. Kit gave me some hot soup and I felt better than I had for ages. Next day we were loaded. Coal dust all over everything. I’d never been so black! Even our cabins, do what we might about shutting them in, there was a thin film of dust over everything. Getting out of Bedworth loading place is an art. The channel will just take boats breasted and a single pair. At the end is an exceptionally narrow entrance and you go into a blind turn to get into the main channel. There is mud on the opposite bank and in the bend. It is necessary to strap the butty up short as you turn and hold her stern to the bank so that she turns like a pivot with the motor. We were helped out by a cheery but dirty lad named Alf, with a donkey. Kit didn’t agree with his methods but he took no notice, also there was a sudden call on the horn — a pair of empties came whistling through the bridge putting us squarely on the mud, despite the donkey! We had the hell of a time getting off again. The run home was uneventful. Vera and I took the motor between us. Kit lived on the butty. We trailed back over Tring Summit to the Cow Roast on a particularly wet morning — with Kit steering the butty — she had an enormous umbrella up and was eating a boiled egg at the same time and in oil skins! We were all tired and irritable through reaction, though by the time we reached Hayes, Kit had said bitterly several times during our return journey, that she thought Wendy had been so ill she had never noticed our faults. But as we met boats at one lock, I heard her say proudly that “We’d come down pretty well two handed and were doing well!”. The sky went gold! I packed my bags and cleared out of Battersea next day. Bid a sad farewell to Kit. We wrote up the last of my log that night. Buzz bombs came over while we did it. The gilt was off the gingerbread, as far as our next trip was concerned. With both Wendy and Kay gone I didn’t even know who I would be working with. I was so tired now that we’d stopped working that I simply didn’t care and only wanted to go home and sleep and sleep. When I got home mother said “You don’t mind do you, S (her brother) is here, he isn’t very well — it’s a kind of nervous breakdown”. He wasn’t bad just rather helpless but I felt my inside, which was aching to unbend, go rigid, here again was a necessity to be someone else and play a part. No rest in bed. Mother frantically busy and plenty to do. My twenty first birthday. I felt all day as if I was in a coma. Nothing seemed to touch me physically or mentally, in the evening when everyone was in bed, I wept with pure self pity. No presents, no key, no rest, oh hell! Next day the gang took me to a concert — we listed to Eine Kleine Nacht music. Tiny and I sat together and suddenly thrilled together at the music. I felt a warm throb of happiness and could have hugged him for no reason at all! We went to tea at Joy’s to meet Ian. Home on leave from the Fleet Air Arm. For some reason, he was not in the Gang’s good books. While we were arguing hotly on their right to criticise he appeared and everyone behaved like snarling dogs walking round on their toes. I felt weak and wanted a laugh, but felt Ian needed moral support and that was hardly the best way of giving it. Suddenly I thought this is daft, it’s Bob I want to see more than anyone else. I didn’t see him till Wednesday, when I worked at College and I saw him in the middle of the morning. I was a windy sunny day and we just suddenly met. I waved joyously and he ran down the steps to meet me, both thrilled for once or anyway pleased! I could have flown the clouds. We talked of all sorts of things — he asked me if we ever went to London. I had to say not often! We parted. I feeling radiant. We met in the evening and had a misunderstanding over tickets for the dance on Saturday. Bob left me his eyes thunderous. I felt my inside collapse and suddenly everything, boats, Bob, Wendy came like a black blanket over me. Ivy, angelic, let me howl on her shoulder and we sat in the still dark by the static water pool and I cried more completely than ever before. The stars looked down silent and kind. “If it’s meant to be, it will be“ said Ivy and I went home aching and empty.

I went to the dance and had a wonderful time but I couldn't keep my eyes off Bob. We said good-bye at the end, in a hurry as usual. I thought we can't just say good-bye like this. We can’t. I went home with Tony. Anthony tall stalwart, impersonal being, whom I liked very much and they kept me from thinking. When I got home in the small hours, I wrote Bob a note wishing him goodbye and well, telling him how I felt. Next morning, I was due back from leave; but my mother was ill and I had to stay for two days. I went back watching the sidings of Bournemouth station slide away with a heavy heart and no care for anything. Into Paddington that other world. That had somehow become unbelievable during my last leave. Back at Bulls Bridge, and the boats, there was Kit. "It's Kay and Miranda" she said "Your boats are at the end of the lay-by." I walked down, there smelling strongly of paint and dazzling in their newness, lay "Astra and Corolla”. Miranda looked out of the butty and said "You're living with me this trip, let me give you a hand with those things”. My heart sank. I had a crazy hope that Kay might have lived on the butty. Instead her broad grin appeared round.

Second trip with our own boats

We went up Cowley and up to the Summit fairly well; the weather was cold blowy and wet, but this time we had a cargo of steel and at least we had no lists to worry about. Going up Stoke Hammond Kay had a nasty experience. She was on the motor and so went right into the lock with her boat and as soon as she had put her in forward gear; jumped onto the butty roof, climbed onto the chimney and leapt up the wall. It's easy enough on the fairly shallow locks around Mathas; but these are deeper so in the third lock. Miranda and I dealing with the side ponds. Heard a sudden cry. Looking round saw only Kay's fingers clinging to the edge of the lock. We both moved like greased lighting and heaved her over; but I shall never forget the sight of Kay hanging down the black slippery wall; the butty having swung away from the wall and the swirling water hissing through the narrow gap beneath! Rrr! Kay never jumped those locks again. We achieved Rugby without incident; but there the water was very bad; and we had a grim time getting up the pounds. They were so low that the boats practically scraped their way along. Getting into the locks was a nightmare. We towed our butty in every time and tried breasting up the boats but that was of no avail and under the bridges it was difficult to do anything about it anyway. By the third and fourth lock the usual torrential downpour, which seemed inevitable whenever we were in difficulties had started. Anyone who has tried to move 25 tonnes of steel and boat on a muddy canal bottom will know that it takes less time than to tell to lose one's temper with it. At the fourth lock something went in the blades. It was beginning to get dark. As the engine chocking fitfully and pouring black smoke, we started up the longish pound below the top lock. The lock keeper said "Go on the tow rope, you can stop 'er going in the blades then if there’s trouble", we did. The butty got stuck and there was no direct pull to get her off so we put her on a short strap, the moment she was going nicely we let her off, the tow rope snaked out like a devil whipped round the head lamp and snapped it like a twig and snapped the tow rope like string! The butty had hit something else as we released her. "Oh God" said we and tied up in despair, soaked. Tired out, and miserable. Next morning we got the rope out of the blades and started through Braunston with no lights on the butty. The cold weather had made everyone light their fires and as luck would have it we met a string of boats. The air in the tunnel grew thicker and thicker; it became almost impossible to see one's own bows; certainly only just possible to see anyone else's lights. I was on the motor and had a bad patch of bumping; that is that I couldn't judge my distance and kept ricocheting from one wall to the other. Terrified that at any moment I should see the bows of approaching boats slide into my light; Suddenly there seemed to be a cotter beat to my own engine and staring into the dark dimly distinguished and approaching orange glow. I slowed right down and kept my bows crashing into the wall on my side of the tunnel; anything I thought is better than for them to swing over to the wrong side. Where my butty was I had no idea but could hear vague crashes and prayed they could see the motor cabin light to steer by. Suddenly and only just as our bows swung over the long crocodile nose of a boat without lights crept past ours. Their light was suspended from their mast which had given it the appearance of great distance in the cloudy atmosphere! My entire inside did a sort of wild flap; I certainly hadn't expected them for at least five minutes and vision of what a crash in a tunnel could be like were too awful to contemplate! Not quite so amusing as an experience had by some other trainees. Slatty was on the motor and beating quite cheerfully through the tunnel when something made her Ulm rolled to observe with absolute horror that the butty had disappeared;- there was the snubber and that was all. She began anxiously to haul on the trailing end of rope convinced that it must have broken and visions of a long reverse down the tunnel. So convinced was she that they had dropped off that it didn't occur to her to shout. Suddenly the bows of the butty, -swam into view and slapped into her stern. 'What the hell!?" screamed the butty steerer "Whatever ARE you doing!" The butty lights had merely failed to function suddenly and she had been cheerfully steering by the distant motor light. Very difficult to explain! Tunnel stories are man}' and varied: one tells of two sailors who tried boating after the last war. They disliked tunnels and decided on a new technique. They neatly jetted their boats, set the engine ahead, steered them into the tunnel and walked off and over the hills; to arrive the further entrance just in time to stop a pair going in. "Boats coming" they said. "Don't be daft that don't make no difference, who's are they since you're so bright?" "Ours." The startled boaters stopped just in time to see the sailors step gaily onto the bows of the breasted pair: abreast and sail off! Another, this from trainees in Blisworth tunnel. They were proceeding through one evening when Margaret. Steering saw the lights of boats approaching, she slowed down and kept her nose into the wall. The" seemed to be no sound and she watched their approach with interest. The bows and cratch slid past hers and vanished!

No explanation has ever been offered for that one; especially as the person concerned was a very unpsychic type! I always had a horror of falling off a boat in a tunnel and once when our lights failed and we had to crawl along the top planks to strap on a hurricane lamp it nearly came true; fortunately we were broken backed and loaded with coal so it would have been a long slide first. But still -! We had a difficult time going round the Oxford bends and got muddied on the really wicked double bend in the middle. Someone, bless their hearts, came and towed us off. We eventually achieved Birmingham, but on that trip decided that we'd try and do the three our pound from the top of Knole in the dark: on the assumption it was to be a moonlight night. It wasn't of course, merely rammed and got darker and darker/finally/as we were about to give in Kay having hit a bridge. Through night blindness, it cleared up and the rain clouds parted and it turned into a heavenly night. I shall never forget coming into Tysley; I was on the motor and having crawled round the bends getting by degrees the business of steering; having to half all the shadows to find the bank, was beginning to enjoy myself.

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