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Memories of a Canal Boater [J.Peters : Part 7]

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

We crawled slowly in 8; the dock lay quiet before us, the great piles of aluminium silver against the dark steel - the cranes still for once and at their foot, rows of boats,- silent and still, there must have been fourteen or fifteen pairs black and silver and very lovely. It was really ecstatically beautiful. We tied up and hushed our engine. Miranda and I suddenly were bitten with a wave of excitement and in our filthiest clothes even. Without washing, went out to buy fish and chips. We walked, eating hungrily and so tired we were part sleep walking up to the town. Past a tall cinema "shall we?" "Lets go in the eight pennies" and in we went to sit in rich red plush seats and in a hot stifling atmosphere, Bing Crosby in "Going my Way". We weren't unloaded until late next day and washed religiously all day. Kay was showing signs of illness and had a lay in: Miranda and I took the boats down to Camp Hill. Them she and Miranda had a difference of opinion on what was the best course for invalids. Kay maintaining that she could cope with the butty without brainwork. And Miranda, that a gentle life on the motor was the thing; Kay wept bitterly and weakly and we all decided it was flu: so I went off on the motor doing my own lock wheeling - leaving Kay and Miranda with the butty. Kay stayed in bed in the afternoon; and we had the hell of a wind blowing and a battle at one of the locks with a family who nipped in and grabbed a lock under our noses, putting us on the mud. I've forgotten a slab of this trip. When I arrived back on the boats I found that Kay had made; friends with an exceptionally dirty family of renowned thieves known as the Coxes. For some time she had been' contemplating the purchase of another dog. They had a large liver and white foxhound which took her eye on our first trip. Over a beer at the "Prospect of Whitby" a well-known dock pub celebrated in one of Miss Dorothy Sayers novels; she and Harry Cox made friends and discussed the matter. Harry was tall, lean and incredibly dirty. He wore dark clothes and a dark cloth cap well pulled down over ~is eyes - a fringe of yellow hair stuck out around the back; he had long dirty neck with a prominent Adam's apple and green eyes which were startling in their surroundings. He talked in jerks and told incredible tales - all lies but which I think he rather believed himself; providing no one contradicted him too often! His father had something the matter with his head and went off his nut occasionally but this was more a matter of hearsay than anything. He too was dark an over - but had remarkable light blue eyes. I only once saw him with his face washed when it was such a shock - that I simply didn't recognise him - and only when their butty swung gaily past ours, a whole bevy of Coxes waving did I realise who they were. Mama was the brains of the family. Harry was sixteen and there was a large and indiscriminate collection of boys of small sizes as well: all dirty, skinny, fair haired and green eyed. But she was gay and slim and very attractive; with a very brown face and brown hair drawn tightly back into a bun. Gold earrings and flashing green eyes, very neat features. A long brown frock which nearly reached her ankles. Kay and Harry became great friends. Harry came over on the Sunday in the docks to see Kay and eventually, having talked most of the day said "you like tea?". Kay smiled charmingly. Thinking an extra packet wouldn't be amiss; Harry with mysterious signs disappeared. Not long after an enormous lighter bumped past. Harry leapt on board "'ere give me that biscuit tin" disappeared and reappeared with it full. Kay thoughtfully applied a lid. Thanked Harry earnestly and feeling that this tea getting was on rather a large scale. Bid him farewell. Harry promised determinedly to take her out for a beer at six. At quarter to a large policeman also a friend of Kay's arrived in the course of his rounds to cheer her solitary vigil; he sat down firmly practically on top of the tea chest and partook of a cup of that beverage. ... Harry appeared and bounced in before he saw the guest and seeing him withdrew in one movement "just a friend" said Kay "dropped in unexpectedly" (feeling the delicacy of the situation) "He's going to take me on his rounds", Harry gulped into his tea cup and drank hurriedly, vanishing with hardly another word. "Some of these boaters are queer blokes" said the arm of the law and proceeded to escort a relieved Kay around the docks pointing out the many places where suicide and attempts there of had been fished out! But to return to the dog; Harry having been reassured about the Policeman handed over the dog - and offered with warmth to "butty" us to Birmingham just to keep an eye on the dog for us. "Buttying" someone means that you travel together and you tie up at the same places. Towards Christmas family and friends butty each other to get together for the season holiday and one passes families - four boats strung together whistling merrily along with everyone in the best of spirits and the families all muddled up. It's a great time for courtship this; as it is one of the few times of year when people get together for more than a night or two. Miranda, however, viewed the idea of "buttying" this celebrated family with not unjustifiable coldness. It was scarcely, perhaps, the best introduction we could have to boaters society! But anyway by now/christened "Kelly" was a member of our family. He was large and inclined to be impetuous. In a minute cabin his swinging tail and eager mouth upset or devoured a surprising amount and both Miranda and I felt glad that he lived with Kay. By the time we reached the Bottom Road we had come to except him; his friendly visits while we cooked our supper, sitting firmly on our step; one melting eye fixed on our supper and one on us - just in case we relaxed and looked the other way for a moment! His pathetic whimpers when we didn't were all part of the days work. But with Kay now ill: he became a devastating problem - he refused flatly to stay in the cabin when there was trouble and leapt blithely and with much tail wagging onto the shore the moment we stuck. Left on shore he howled bitterly and instead of running, on the towpath after the boats. Leapt into the water and struck out after us. A not too excellent idea considering the blades etc. The wind rose and blew with icy persistence: .the engine developed its usual habit of giving out as soon as we were empty - the boats swung time and time again onto the mud. Muddying is comparatively logical with three. One goes up to the bows and shafts them over to midstream. The second throws all her weight onto the tiller to swing .the stern out, the third alternately helps this operation by shafting from the 'stern'; or else trots along to the butty stern and shafts that off, so that no part of the boat drags on the bank and there is some hope of getting up enough speed to prevent one slipping up. With two, the thing is crazy. One can achieve the motor bows off the bank and the stern, but the butty acts as a drag and before you've moved four yards the wind puts you back where you were before. Miranda and I slogged into the growing dark with bitter feelings; we reached the bottom of Minneworth and under a steel blue sky of whipping clouds in the dark shelter of tall trees tied up. As soon as we were tethered a pair of empties came cheerfully past swinging down the middle of the stream as though mud and wind simply didn't exist. We looked after them wondering just what was wrong with us and went to dig out coal for Kay and ourselves from the back end. Next morning. After a night in which the boats slapped each other and the water gurgled between them and the bank unceasingly. We woke up, or we became unwillingly conscious. Breakfast was a silent meal. Kay was worse and showed every signs of flu. She scrambled round and made her own tea in an uncomfortable fashion, whilst Kelly licked her and the food in cheerful abandon. We struggled with the engine, after ten minute’s or so it burst into life and the boat throbbed: a horse boat passed us with shouted imprecations about our tie. We set off. Curditch is a set of locks widely spaced. But single and bow-hauling the butty was a necessity. The wind was if anything wilder, and the engine worse. That day was an unbelievable nightmare. We did not eat- we hardly spoke- we shafted until our hands were raw and our backs were unbearable. The butty became unwieldy, innumerable horse boats passed us and complicated things. The unending beat of the motor nearly drove Kay. Fighting the flapping doors, the dog and her utter misery, mad. We "were unable even to find time to see her - we worked in a blind aching misery - it grew dark and we found we had taken 12 hours to cover six miles and we still had 'lit finished the locks - so suddenly we gave in and went to eat tea leaving the engine running, knowing we were fat to tired to start it again if it stopped. The beat suddenly changed and raced, Miranda struggled off into the dark to find out what had happened. Kay almost tearful said she couldn't bear the beat any longer and had to change the rhythm somehow! That was enough "let's tie up" said Miranda. We all thought it an excellent idea but where? We were on a mud bank on the wrong side of the Cut and in imminent danger of being hit by a horse boat if we drifted so we shafted ourselves across the Cut once more and after about half an hour we made the opposite bank. I turned round to Miranda to yell from the bows that I thought I could jump on shore with a rope when the clip clop of horses’ hooves sounded in the darkness and the swift swish of a boat. Before I could speak I was pinned to the Cratch with a rope and the boat coming rapidly up behind and the rope sliding round our Cratch after the horse. I gave a scream and fought madly, visions of being neatly sliced in half very vivid for a moment. Somehow I slid sideways and was thrown between the cratches of the two boats. The rope pinged across the top and was gone; - what happened at the other end I was too busy getting myself disentangled from a slippery position of safety on the side of the cratch to bother about. The next day was better but we decided to wait for the fitters: our engine was really too much. We then sallied forth the following afternoon, set off by fitters and all, in a mighty struggle with shafts. They waved goodbye to our sidling dubiously, evidently expecting us to come to grief at any moment. But somehow we didn't. Beyond a certain old town by the Cut, between Coventry and Brum is a very low blue brick bridge. It's so low that it's necessary to take down one's motor Cratch in order to creep through. Some blarney idiot told us that our cratches on our new boats were low enough to get through; they weren't and the motor having gone just too far and got jammed beneath; and had to be towed out backwards by a horse boat. We gazed with horror but found the cratch was merely a cleverly put together framework; it had merely collapsed and was still intact. The lamp had gone though, which meant we had no lights on our bully or our motor. We crept up Atherstone, and realised sadly that the following day was Sunday. We tied up in the mouth of the lock and were up well before six next morning. The pair behind us were furious at our good position and tried to make us get out. They started their engines well before the lock was open and were ready to jostle us at the slightest opportunity. However we were beginning to get tough and had our engines going long before the lock was open. Suddenly the gates swung open and we nosed 9ur way in. Then began a mighty race. There were boats coming down and we had the locks with us. So no lock wheeling, we went up easily and shook off the pair behind. Next we swept over the Summit going slowly because of the mud. Our rivals were visible on the long straight stretches but showed no signs of catching up.

Down Dodswell and Northchurch tl1e dark dawn &'1d red sky that had dimly lit us up Mathas, lightened and rain began to fall heavily - we got drenched. The towrope made our cabin a large pool. We were so wet, it simply wasn’t any good bothering. Presently 'their lock wheeler began to appear before we were out of the lock and to watch us, a surly girl who refused to help. We daren’t stop or else we should have had to wait all day while the string of boats behind us passed. Our unloading place would have gone. So on we went. Next an old white-haired woman in long black skirts and with a three cornered headscarf appeared in place of her daughter. \\That she didn’t say about 'Girls cluttering up the Cut and stopping honest folks getting' on with their job and earning' a living', wasn't worth saying-but Miranda turned a blind eye and a deaf ear.

The Ovaltine boats arriving slap at thy top gates as we swept out of the bottom. There was no time to eat and less to think. We were lock wheeling again now-- sloshing through puddles, dodging the soaking hedges on and on. If anything went wrong we were done but by some miracle it didn't-- we sailed into Apsley and tied up still head of the team, and as proud as punch.

The rain stopped, it was my turn to go home for a few days while the boats were unloaded and then went down to the docks. I crawled home dry but nearer dead than alive. \When I got to Waterloo I found I had missed the 7.30 and ended up on the 11.30 p.m, At Christchurch it was a glorious moonlight night and I trailed home feeling so unreal. The soft warm sweet smelling southern air after everything was so peaceful. It was so lovely to be in the same town as B he might not love or even like me any more, but he wasn't far away and that was all I asked. He and I under the same stars for once. I fell into bed when I got home and next morning as I lay dreamily~ amongst a pile of letters on my breakfast tray w~. One marked Private and in a strange hand. I suddenly knew and was so weak I could scarcely open it. I looked at the signature and cried from sheer joy and relief. . It took a lot of reading and I was so deliriously goldenly happy that I couldn’t think of anything all day. There wasn’t much to say about that leave except that when you are in love with someone, one expects them to know what you are thinking; a foolish delusion which one would not have under normal circumstances. We met once for about five minutes. A tall dark creature who swept the floor in a cavalier bow when we met. I had a wild desire to run after him when he went, feeling I might never see him again; but I didn’t and he went. I went back to the boats, warm and happy inside but still very tired.

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