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Memories of a Canal Boater [J.Peters : Part 3]

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

At Appleton where a collection of G.U.C.C. boats. "Beer" said Kit some were loading, others just waiting. Boater youths, brown or red faced, mending ropes, or bailing water, tending to give us quiet looks. The women were chattier, mopping the roofs of their cabins or scrubbing the woodwork. Strong and stocky, most of them with greasy hair, brown skins and brown eyes. Coloured scarves worn three comer ways round their heads, blouses and skirts. None in slacks. The older women in dark clothes, all with aprons and busy. Children in most of the hatches, dirty and scruffy most of them with torn clothes and unwashed faces. But finding ourselves, how difficult it was to keep clean, we decided one could never tell, unless at very close quarters if it was one weeks dirt or merely the accumulation of one day! We went on and on and after about ten hours travelling drew towards the Hayes Depot. The huge silver gasometer marking it with an unmistakable beacon in the evening light. " Breast up, ready to tie before the bridge and then go round to the right" said Kit." All loaded boats tie there on the way up country". Sound your horn very well before the bridge and sweep round, keeping straight in the centre of the Cut till your stern will swing clear of the bridge hole. Then go full ahead and put all your weight on the tiller. Miranda took one of the forty-foot shaft and stood poised on the bows, ready to give an extra heave if there were boats tied on the bend. We crept through, our engine beating gently, our stern swung clear and the engine roared into full acceleration, a fountain of white water burst from her stern, the full seventy foot of our boats pivoted slowly round. Miranda laid down her shaft and seized a rope to tie instead, the watching mechanics and boaters went on with their jobs. "Very nice" said Kit. And we all swelled unintentionally with pride. Because the corner is more than a right angle and only slightly over a boat length in width and for all that the Cut runs straight past the bridge on down to Brentford, there is very little room for untidy parlour tricks. So we tied up and ate our supper we lay next to Rosie someone and her husband a two handed pair of spotless cleanliness and trim beauty (both boats and people); and stern to stern with Dickie Boswell and his wife Lu. They were delightful, full of fun; both short and stocky, he was of Romany stock and looked it with a smiling cheerful face and an endless flow of conversation. Lu was plump and fair of face with pure platinum blonde hair, bleached to a gold not from a bottle, tied roughly back from her shinning rosy cheeks. They had three flaxen haired children - hopelessly dirty and full of beans and all under five. They knew Kit very well and talked across the stern of the two boats while we ate supper sky larking between each other like a couple of kids. Kay, who was feeling unappreciative, went off for her beer. I did some washing, then wrote to the gang, one of whom had sent me a parcel. I stretched myself in the last rays of the sun and eyed my dirty aching limbs. Must wash. But to watch the sunset behind the factory buildings was so much more exciting and to listen to Lu's shrill voice putting the kids to bed, and Dickey's backchat from the motor cabin where he was washing with noises like grampus. Further down the lay-by someone was fiddling with their engine the sound rose and faded away repeatedly in the quivering air. The boats bobbed gently as a pair of "Fellows" went down to the docks loaded. Taking the wide sweep of the bend under the bridge easily and confidently. The man on the motor going full ahead to pull his butty round and his stalwart daughter, her hair in curlers, rowing her tiller frantically and making it with apparently perfect judgement. Lu shouted and the girl yelled back resting on her tiller as she disappeared beneath the bridge. "Yes" thought I. "This is the life" and went happily to wash. Later on Dickey played a mandolin to lull the children to sleep and sang in a rich deep voice with Lu's shrill treble joining in occasionally. Kay landed on the roof with a thump and came in a flaming temper. "Christ! What a row - Never get any rest with those people! Ghastly tied stern to stern with anyone - oh God!" Her remarks subsided in bubbles and she washed vigorously, rolling herself up in her blanket after and curling up "Can't stand it - oh Christ! Too hot with the doors shut", Slam! Slam! Went the doors and some vibrant remarks went out into the now quietening summer night. Peace settled gently down and the world went to sleep. I felt disloyal to Kay who I liked but wished Dickey had gone on singing but didn't have long to wish it in. The next day we went north. I felt like the first adventurer. At first everything was silver in the sunshine. Cowley Bridge was just like a painting by Cotman - a little white stone bridge, still reflections, vast tall beeches towering above it -- Cowley Lock is lovely too. On, up the wide stretches of canal, everything misty in the sun. The same routine for locks. We did three locks each. Lock wheeling or getting the locks ready motor and butty. I learnt to take the motor in very gently, always on the right, touch the wall just beyond the gate, going into neutral as one touched; and then as ones boat straightened out reverse then the instant she came to rest or touched the sill forward gear to prevent her slipping out releasing the butty off the towrope just as one goes in. The butty was the same drill with the addition of the towrope. A new and fright some thing controlled entirely from the butty. The length of rope is coiled neatly into the hatches behind one and runs over a stud round which it is twisted; along the length of the boat through "running blocks" to the mast where it passes through a shackle tied to the mast and lies neatly down the side of the sheets when not in use. From there it is seized by the motor and affixed to the stud as the motor goes out of the lock. The rope is held by the butty steerer who pays it out to the required length and then crosses the rope rapidly round the stud and checks it; with a special tie when this is achieved. As one has at the same time to steer, and we were constantly meeting boats coming down, waiting outside the locks to hustle us out" Life was an agony of anxiety! Kit took me lock wheeling on bikes, we tore along a towpath which was narrow and bumpy and seemed to have been chewed by a crocodile. Fishermen, who, as it was Sunday and late summer were beginning to appear in their hundreds, eyed us and our boats with dislike or shouted cheery remarks at us. Kit took very little notice and feeling much like Alice and the Red Queen (except that we were getting somewhere fast), I tore along behind her. One false move and it was the thorn hedge or the Cut. There was no time to be unable to crank those blasted paddles up now and up they went, slowly at first and then more easily. My arms ached and the sun got hotter and hotter. We climbed through the stately Georgian beauty of Casioberry Park and the people got denser and denser, Watford, Cassy Bridge, Iron Bridge - two hellish bends we didn't do too well, Lady Capels, Hunton Bridge and chain, Ricky, Black Lock, Cowley and Denham Deep were past history and might have happened a thousand years ago instead of this morning. The thicker the people, the more furious Kit got and the clumsier we became in our mutual anxiety to do our best. We moved babies off checking stumps-- "Oh! Do you mind -- your little boys- I’ve got to stop this boat!!" "Can you get away from the gates they open inwards you see?" We had to keep kids away from the paddles in case the checking tongue of steel slipped and someone's windless flew to do damage amongst the crowd. Miranda gave a sudden laugh and said "Fantastic isn't it!". Her fisherman's hat on the back of her head and her orange Breton fisherman's jerkin wide at the neck - a pair of grey flannels and sandals. I suddenly realised we did look odd ourselves, our faces streaming, our weird assortment of clothes. Kay became sophisticated and spoke politely to people. Miranda's eyes laughed and her cultured accents cleared little Ernie and Jim more quickly than ever we could. Kay looked like something from Hollywood her red gold hair shinning in the sun - her thin clinging shirt and slacks and graceful figure. I was just hot. We drank deeply between locks, no rest all day, except for five minutes on the roof now and then. Kit lock wheeled for us for necessity demanded a bucket. By night, when we tied up at seven, we were dead. "Fishery" half way to Iring Summit. A lock between a graceful white stone bridge with a Georgian balustrade. A good pub. We washed, Kay went for a drink with Kit - I envied her energy and the pub but I didn't like beer and I vaguely disapproved of women drinking, so I ate, read, ached and went to sleep. I wondered what Miranda did in a vague way but very vaguely. The next day was much the same only by the afternoon we reached "The Cow Roast" and the Summit. A toothless lock keeper like a hen checked us and gauged us and we realised that we'd finished the first upgrade of forty-four locks from London. We went swinging easily on the longer snubber across Tring Summit and having being told at the Cow Roast that we should be "Locked up" at Mathas owing to water shortage - so we tied up at four pm. Kay and I ate enormously and planned great washes. I had mine first and sat on the deck, she splashed and I drew a couple of "Barlows" that had tied up behind us. Lovely they are, much lighter than G.D.C.C. boats in frame with "Bologna" engines. They have, I think the most fascinating beat on the Cut, uneven and exciting with a sort of wild natural rhythm about it! Wow! They are painted very daintily with a white strip round the bows and stern, gay bunches of flowers to end and edge it. On their deck hatch they have a scarlet heart on a white ground and the doors to their cabins are painted traditionally with roses and castles; so are their water cans and Arn bowls. By the type of painting on these articles you can tell where they come from. Whether it be Braunston yards - which favour a dark green ground and roses and castles or Bedworth which have a lighter more orange and yellow flowery style. There is yet another style of painting from Messrs Harvey-Taylor's yard at Leyton Buzzard. I think they are a subsidiary to Nurses at Braunstone and as such not important, although their boats have very nice castles painted on the side of their cabins. Still so have "Fellows". Next day in a cold white mist we went down Mathas. The butty, one checked going into the lock but didn't tie up, it had an irritating thumb string to remember which was attached to a minute steel thumb under the gate and with which one stopped the butty swinging out of the lock with the motor, the moment the gates opened. Irritating because it entailed having to leave it on till the toe rope was picked up and flip it off in time to deal with paying out the towrope! There were fun and games until we learnt how to do it! We had to keep the butty "Up" near the front of the lock and see her "Elum" didn't sink onto the sill. She was then taken back on a string by the motor as soon as the sill became visible, dropped and picked up by the towrope. The white mist, the pair behind, the fact there was a pair waiting for us at every lock. That bloody thumb string was the final straw. Failure to deal with it at exactly the right moment meant both boats sailed out breasted and in short pounds it was to hard to get them apart in time to get round and in the next lock. The boaters were kindly, most of them knew Kit well and were ready for the strange things her crew might do. The days past rapidly and peacefully enough. We learnt our muscles were getting stronger and life wasn't quite such a rush. Beyond Mathas, the locks stretch on over rich farmland flat on either side - the locks every half mile or so. The harvest was rich that year and I remember lock wheeling, the scent of the corn making the keen air of the heights sweet and gazing enthralled at the golden land, chequered with sheaves that stretched away on either side. An occasional green stretch dotted with black and white cattle to break the monotony. The winding blue ribbon of canal with its white concrete edges broken by tall rustling bunches of reeds. The grey house of a lockkeeper standing over the black and white gates of the lock. Or an occasional warm red brick farmhouse sheltered by haystacks and tall poplars, as the only habitations in sight. Little white bridges, clumps of willows as we came down to Leighton Buzzard and even richer, greener cattle land stretching away to the little red brick town. Silent grey herons that stand rigid, ugly and yet graceful between the reeds. Busy little moorhens bustling like agitated bees in and out of the dark overhanging banks and clucking with irritation at the intrusion of Battersea's vast bulk. Past Harry Taylor’s yards, an untidy jumble of sheds with a boat on the stocks; a few dirty boats haphazardly tied beyond. Round the sharp bends of Leighton, under the bridge with the little straight silver horn sounding shrilly to warn other boats of our coming and people gazing curiously down. Through the Jackdaw pound noted for its bends, bad muddy stretches and blind bridges. Long pounds now with time to check our stores, tidy the cabins and polish our brass-Stoke Hammond-Talbot, Fenny. Fenny with the pub that is every boater’s store where one does all ones shopping- and buys stacks of tinned milk. Water gauging and a revolting man for a lockkeeper. Fenny is quite a place. We spent a night there and I thought of the holiday camp where the College was spending its holiday-harvesting. Somehow the idea didn't fit, although I found out later they were much nearer than I thought, and I regretted it promptly. From Fenny there is a six-hour pound to Stoke Bruene. Seven uphill locks with a lockkeeper who has no teeth-watery blue eyes ~d a soft spot for Kay. Miranda refers to him as "that old horny goat ". An exquisitely pretty village with a pub, a church, poplars, a row of cottages in grey stone. The last lock being tucked inconveniently, as locks go, under a bridge, we stop there and I am told of Sister Mary, who is to tie a finger Miranda has damaged. Her father was a Cut doctor and left a bequest in his will for Mary to look after the boaters which she did to the extent of always being dressed like a Commandant with a white headdress. She was a legend from one end of the Cut to the other. Her efficiency was doubted as Miranda came back from her visit startlingly arrayed in a sling and instructions not to use the hand for three days. "Wait till we are through the tunnel" said with a giggle, as Miranda announced her opinion of “this nonsense".

We set off on a long snubber, Kay on the motor, Miranda and I lying flat on the roof of the butty for my first tunnel-Blisworth-two miles long-just a rabbit hole in the steep green side of the hill. We put on our headlamps and go into the unfathomable darkness slowly, feeling our way down the right hand wall. The air goes damp and cold, the water sloshes and slaps, the walls shine with dampness. Drips hit me on the arms and legs at intervals. The engine makes a terrifying roar and one can hear crashes in the dark and see no motor at all. The crashes cease, an arc of light appears round our bows and curves across the roof. "Keep your bows in the centre and you will always be alright. If you see anything coming keep to the right and go slowly." The stern of the motor was now in being with Kay looking tense and never turning, steering carefully suddenly the engine roared into life and we seemed to fly through the narrow space. Kit remarked that if you tried to keep the butty in the centre it simply didn't and it was difficult to stop oneself over steering in a tunnel. We passed under a great funnel of light leading to the sky, "Look up" commanded Kit and I did.

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