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Memories of a Canal Boater [J.Peters : Part 2]

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

Kit reversed the motor and then crept forward to an odd little landing stage. When we made fast, the engine was turned off and I found I jumped off the cabin quite automatically and walked round the gun whale with no thought of it at all. Kay disappeared into our cabin, changed hurriedly into slacks and went off to pack up her flat with 'my dear, you will be all right won't you!', she vanished. The explanation about her legs became obvious. I decided I needed a wash. It seemed an awfully small bowl to wash in and I was awfully tired. I just sat for quite a long time looking. Behind us the enormous warehouses towered silent and still and very black. Beyond them a bridge spanned the Cut, a bridge with sides built high and a window in the centre like a Venetian bridge. The towpath past beneath it and by the warehouse rising steeply over the entrance to the private dock of the building. It was all so very still, warm, so very silent - the sky behind the bridge was green and above was very deep blue with one or two twinkling stars. A smell of cooking and an invitation to supper called me to Kit's cabin - I woke up and went. Later that evening I tried to boil a kettle on Kay's oil stove, I wound the wick the wrong way and had to wash in cold water. I was too tired to wait up so I went to bed. Kay eventually came in filling the door while I explained about the stove. She was very sweet about it. I decided to myself that I definitely preferred her to Miranda but I'd better be careful and went to sleep. I slept like a log, woke up very early, heard myself say 'hello' to Kay in devastatingly bright tones and went to sleep again. I woke up later and heard Kay put the kettle on. I struggled out of my cupboard and dressed in relays with Kay. It was all so cramped and cold. We bolted tea, bread and marmalade. Kit gave us a cry for action and we leapt and watched them start the engine. Cries from the lock 'a barge coming up'. It came the horse plodding slowly - the barge deep in the water and enormous. We moved gently into the lock bumping the sides. Kit took me to buy sterilised milk from Pink's dairy, as we came back clanking bottles and by the deserted streets I realised it was only just seven o'clock. No one at home would be stirring for another hour. Down to the next lock, the same little cockney lockkeeper, joking and laughing an orange scarf round his neck and everything at such speed. Given instructions on how to wind a paddle (to let the water out of the lock) I found I couldn't move it and was ignominiously reduced to opening the gates pushing with my behind! Then horror of horror I had to jump down onto the cabin top, a drop of about four foot no steps no nothing, "Quick!" cried Kit in peremptory tones and I gathered my fears and jumped - astounded to find I was still whole! It was still very early, misty, cold and noises close at hand were exaggerated while everything else seemed muffled. The warehouses loomed dark. The waterway seemed a white clammy river of mist. Suddenly the sun rose into being and it all became fairyland. The gold tinged mist - the cranes, buildings everything very black against a radiant sky. Our boats, brilliant blue and cherry red - the brass that Kit cleaned busily, winking in the sun - the water turning rapidly into fire. Now and then more plodding barges dark and sidling slowly up stream - their owners, as they walked the deck with the vast tiller sometimes talkative - sometimes glum. More locks - the same routine for each. The lock keepers cheery "Need more pudding afor you can wind these locks you will"! Kay laughing and joking with all of them. Miranda, quiet and efficient it seemed to me. Not so to Kit who mothered me and yelled at all of us with equal vigour. Sounds of London waking and stirring. Then that shrill whining sound that grows and grows and then dies into silence, then a crackling crash. My first buzz bomb. "Bastards bloody bastards" commented the lock keeper and took no more notice. They came about every fifteen minutes and about nine o'clock ceased. “Just the rush hour" explained someone. Locks, more locks - swirling water, shut the top gates, drop the paddles, fun to the end raise those, watch till the water the foaming water stills beyond the gate. Reverse, the boats breasted at the stern - open the gates abreast, jog the motor out, pick up the butty straps, lurch while she picks up speed and onto the next - Hampstead Road, City Road, Sturts, Mile End, Acton, Johnstone's, Salmonds, Commercial Road. Pause at the City Lock. Query about the tug - an absolute queue of barges at all angles, horses standing and snorting lazily while their drivers gaze into space or joke and spit amongst themselves. The tug - square in the beam and exactly like a water beetle sidles busily into view, her orange funnel bright and cocksure - does a sort of shuffle and a brisk reverse. The barges poll themselves into an order of sorts, lines and ropes are thrown and the tug is off, the barges swinging at angles behind. The horses are led away to the City Lock Stables. It's an endless business - first the tunnel, very slowly, then a pause while all the barges get themselves sorted out and attached to their fresh respective horses. Then they have to go down which means two fillings each Lock; then when you get through you pass one or two but are ham sandwiched at the next lock. With comments of every kind on one's method of getting through the locks from the irate arrivals behind and so on. However it was only eleven by the time we cleared the lot and sailed out of the bottom lock with instructions that "I think they want you young ladies round that comer". Boats were breasted and we swept out into brilliant sunshine - whirling seagulls and 'London Docks'. Empty boats breasted look lovely travelling on deep water - the engine gives itself a little shake and a gurgle and goes like an angel. The boats themselves are so light they seem to skim the water. Breasted they have a trim appearance of perfect timing as they swing and curve like the gulls themselves. There is a feel about the Docks that they are the end of your world and the opening to the sea and great adventure beyond. There, to us, the enormous length of our seventy foot boats are dwarfed by a tramp 'Norge' from Stockholm that lay mighty in her berth; unloaded by at least half a dozen cranes and a swarm of lorries. Great shining area of water- a sharp tang of salt in the air barges and mighty lighters from the Thames everywhere. Warehouses, cranes standing idle like hooded monsters or dipping and swinging bales of things and long bars of steel, men shouting, the incredible way the lighters progress round the docks with no motor at all, only a shaft, the lighter man hooking himself first onto one thing and then another, running and pushing with the shaft the length of his lighter, unhooking himself and sailing off merrily till he reaches some other grab able craft which will help him on his journey. I gazed and gazed, as usual there wasn't enough time. We whisked round half a mile of dock and suddenly found three or four pairs of Grand Union boats lying alongside a high wharf and in the shadow of "Norge". Here after some shuffling, we hitched ourselves onto the next pair. A plump old dame, with her black hair in plaited earphones, a felt hat pulled well over her eyes, a white apron, a long light coloured frock and black woollen stockings and shoes, said "Allo Kitty how are you Dear?" They started talking earnestly and Miranda with the help of the lady's silent son tied our bows to theirs. Kay said something explosive and disappeared into the motor cabut reappearing in a few seconds with a string bag and a silver one, "Come along, get your ration book, we will go shopping. Kit having waved violently to a little sandy haired man on the dock, after an incomprehensible conversation said that we shouldn't be loaded till the afternoon so we shopped in Lime house and I was amazed at the quantity of fresh food, at the extreme dirt and poverty of the area, Kay's ability to get things done and her determined manner, which could suddenly be suddenly be sunny, joking loudly with the shopkeepers. One or two smiled "Wondered whether you would be down again missy, liking it?" We talked about bombs. "You'll get some tonight, shouldn't be surprised, it’s the docks they want". We greedily ate onion pies and sauce with mugs of coffee and thick slabs of bread and margarine when we got back. They loaded us, a filthy uncomfortable job at three by four pm, we were finished. The boats had their breasting loosened, their beams and planks on the roofs of the cabins they proceeded to tilt and tip wildly, while the cranes swung steel gently down into them.

Kit asked for some of the steel to be moved to write a list we were developing and then we were ready. We trailed wearily round to the other side of the docks and tied ourselves to some lighters and proceeded to sheet up. It's an exhausting business. For one thing the planks and beams are dirty and heavy and awkward. Each one has one place and the right one only - the order in which they are put into place is a ritual. Secondly, you are now gun whale level with the water. Thirdly you have to erect a cobweb like frame of planks and side cloths over which the top cloths may be thrown. To do this one crawls along the planks, one has just laid so daintily onto the stands, screw them firm then throw the side strings from the side cloths' over the planks, thread them through holes in the side cloths in the other side and back over the top planks where they are strapped up tight. The object of the side cloths is that they prevent a heavily loaded boat from sinking in a lock where the water may foam over the sides. We always referred to them as corsets. My heart remained in my mouth throughout the operation. I don't like heights - I don't like water and the water was very green, if it wasn't the water, it was the steel which looked equally unpleasant and much more edgy! So on the whole, as I crawled, oh so slow, to strap up the strings behind Kit I decided I detested sheeting up. We were still sheeting up when once more came that shrill wine and for the first time I saw a buzz bomb pass across the sky and take its fateful crash. There certainly wasn't any point in moving and somehow after, even the unfolding of the tarpaulins and the walking backwards with them along the top planks didn't seem quite so bad. We finished about half past six, I for one was done. The docks were still now and had the golden peace of a Canaletto painting - away in the distance a tiny pair of boats were sheeting up. In the silence a sailor hung out his washing on the "Norge". Kay suggested I sat on the deck where it was warm while she cooked supper. Bacon and beans and coffee - always coffee - fried bread and cake for afters. We ate till we could burst and then just soaked up the remaining sun, ached and talked about Jerome, Kay's fiancé and Kay's former husband, a young very attractive medical officer who had lost his life in the China Seas. Kay went off to get a beer. I washed and finished my letter home and went to bed with Dickens "Great Expectations" and a mug of cocoa. Suddenly I thought of Bob, dwelt on the thought for a moment hastily despatched and read G.E. till I went to sleep. Kay came in latish, we had a muttered conversation and then slept like logs. Suddenly - a God almighty crash, Kay and I leapt simultaneously out of bed and sat shivering in our nightclothes - the boats bumped each other gently and the sky went red. Kit came over wrapped in her coat 'Just behind the sheds" she said, "Look, are you all right?" We were, but startled so still shivering we gazed at a mounting red glow and heard shouts and running. The watchman standing on the wharf behind us muttered "Some poor bloody swine - God and what a time of night." A nameless voice added "Better than the winter". " Well, your right there". Another came over and another, you could just see them: one went into a searchlight and pitched with a blinding light as it crashed. Suddenly anther note in the sky, sturdy note of fighters their lights full - snarling off into the distance. It was so darn comforting - although neither of us expected that they could actually make much difference. Kay said "Any more of this nonsense and we'll make some coffee," The threat was enough - nothing else happened. We woke about six fifteen to a mist-covered world, out of which "Norge" with much hooting was slipping otherwise silently away to the gigantic lock leading into the Thames. She looked impressive, tinged with the first sun. Her engines suddenly filled with the air with a throbbing pulse which one felt rather than heard. Thin little voices shouted across the dock. An old man climbed down the ladder to our boats, untied a barge from the midst of the others we lay against and quietly poled himself away. The great cranes, which looked in the mist, like great prehistoric monsters, began to bob and disappear from the skyline. The docks were awake. The roar of the water cascading over the "Bottom" gates of the locks sounded ominous - the gates dim under the timber bridge - the swirling white foam and green water at their foot even more ominous. The tollhouse, but Kit didn't risk it and we were at the foot of the lock by five to seven.

At seven, the cheery little lock keeper appeared, slipped the: chain off the end gates and got the lock ready for us. In we went, our loaded boats low and heavy now to steer - but at least one could see over them. We filled water cans - had the boats "gauged"" and were off. I learnt the art of taking the butty. The routine for locks, jump off checking strap in hand over the gate, round the stump, three turns, hold it checked, move rope to a forward stump and tie her up, to prevent her slipping her Elum under the beam of the gate and sinking when the water rose. Shut your gate, go and wind a paddle. Loose your boat as soon as she is beyond the danger line. Wind your rope neatly in coils on the cabin top. Lay the end on your water can and round the chimney. The end ready to be seized next time. Most difficult was the timing of the jump off; one hall to take one's tiller out which one couldn't do until one steered one's butty into the left of the lock. Then before the narrow brick ledge was passed one had to hop out, strap in hand and tear up the steps to check. The windlass jabbed my ribs, where it rested in my belt - my arms ached with the stupid paddles I couldn't move. Lock after lock, between locks, the steering. "Steer the opposite way that you want her bows to go" I repeated to myself. Nearly repeated once too often, for on finding myself heading for a brick wall I steered frantically into it instead of away. Kit on the motor gave a wild cry - made animated gestures to steer the other way. Which I did, avoiding complete disaster but getting a very healthy bump. Practical lesson number one!

Away from the locks at last steering was easier and more time to think. I went on the motor with Kit. Fun this, as I was relieved on the butty by Miranda, had to hop off at the next bridge and tear off to the motor, wait for her at the coming bridge and step neatly onto the gun whale as she slowed down to pick me up. Kay disappeared for a rest and I had my first try at motor steering. She was going nicely and evenly and I found I could steer naturally and hadn't a tendency to over steer like Kay. It seemed like pie. I stayed for an hour feeling absolutely blissful. The butty way at the end of the "Long Snubber". The forty-foot very thick rope used in long pounds (stretches between locks) seemed another world of difficulties unremembered. Kay produced tea and we sipped large mugs of condensed milk and tea. I sat art the cabin top - talking to the other two chewing bread and jam. All of us shouting greetings to the workmen at the factories who whistled and waved. It was all perfect. Boats passed, beating down to the docks; we all slowed down. So that our boats should not be sucked together.

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