Escaping a mid-life crisis, Steve Haywood celebrates his birthday with a trip through England's canals
In an attempt to get to grips with a big birthday, author Steve Haywood sets out from Oxford to explore what makes the English, well, so English. His quirky humor is inspired by Tom Rolt, who took to the canals on a similar journey immortalized in the book Narrow Boat, kick-starting the revival of Britain’s waterways. Prepare for a generous helping of mayhem, mishaps, and the staple of every English summer: torrential rain.
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About the Author
Steve Haywood is an award-winning television producer. He is the author of Fruit Flies Like a Banana: England by Canal and Classic Car. He writes a column for Canal Boat.
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One Man - and A - Narrowboat
Slowing Down Time on England's Waterways
By Steve Haywood
Summersdale Publishers LtdCopyright © 2009 Steve Haywood
All rights reserved.
It was a birthday that finally galvanised me into action. Well, not so much a birthday in the general sense as one birthday specifically. One of mine as it happens. It was one of those unsettling birthdays, the sort that have a zero on the end and which come along with alarming regularity every ten years or so.
OK – it's no use being sheepish about it – it was my fiftieth. It happened in November, the same as it's been doing for as long as I can remember, so I can't say it came as a surprise. Actually, my forty-ninth birthday the year before was a bit of a pointer to the way things were going. So one evening over dinner, halfway through a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, I began talking to Em about the essential nature of the English soul.
'The essential nature of the English what?' she said. Some of these cheap wines can be high in alcohol; you need to be a bit cautious of them.
'The English soul,' I explained. 'The basis of our being, the core of our identity ... I thought, erm, I might take a trip around the waterways of England ... to sortta look for it ...' My voice trailed off. The truth was that despite what I was saying I hadn't been thinking much about the soul of England at all. I'd actually been thinking about getting out of London for a jolly – all the soul stuff was just an excuse for the trip. And not a particularly good excuse at that. It didn't even convince me. This much was obvious to Em. The more she challenged me on what on earth I was thinking about, the less I was able to justify it.
A search for the soul of England? What planet was I living on? I might just as well have gone on a search for a new design of the wheelie bin. Or the perfect pork pie. Even I could see that getting away from London was the main thing. All this stuff about the English soul was important, yes. But not that important.
Even so, Em was surprisingly amenable to the idea, given that it was likely to involve me spending protracted periods of the summer on a boat cruising through some of the most picturesque parts of England while she'd be battling daily on the 7.43 a.m. to Charing Cross on mortgage duty. If you ask me, the real clincher for her was the promise of finally getting shot of me moping about the house grumbling about the sad state of contemporary British television. OK, so I'd been moaning about this on and off for as long as I'd been working in the business, but I think that even Em began to recognise I might have a point after my hard-hitting investigative documentary on the Lockerbie bombing had been beaten for a top industry award by Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?
And I'll tell you one other thing: it wasn't a neck-and-neck race to the wire either.
Mind you, there were other incentives for her as well. We've had a canal narrowboat for years, and as any boat owner will tell you, the idyll of getting away for weekends on the water is nowhere near as ... well, idyllic, as it sounds. Once you've fought your way out of town through the Friday-night traffic and actually got to your boat; and once you've unlocked it in what's probably by now the dark; and turned on the electricity and the water and the gas; and got the heating going to warm the place through; and made up the bed; and unloaded the shopping (assuming you've had time to do any shopping); and run the engine to charge up the battery and set about those thousand and one other tasks which invariably face you – from clearing out that packet of chicken legs you inadvertently left in the (switched off) fridge, to getting rid of the spiders that have colonised in your absence – well, once you've done all this, it's pretty well time to start packing up to leave for home again.
Perhaps it was the prospect of weekends when she could arrive at the boat like royalty and be taken off cruising that led Em to be so open to my proposal. Or maybe it was because she never believed it would actually amount to much, given my tendency after a few drinks to come up with big ideas that never did amount to much in the sober light of dawn. At that stage I'm not sure I believed it would ever happen myself either.
The fact was, I was totally immersed in my life in London. I might have toyed with the prospect of escaping from the city, but it was more of a fantasy than a reality. Apart from Em, there was the family, friends, the job. And then there was the house which we'd bought a few years before. It was still in such a sad state of repair that, had there been such a thing, we'd have been targeted by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to London Victorian End-of-Terraces (This-Room-Hasn't-Even-Been-Touched-Since- You-Moved-In Department).
The house was a constant niggling worry, a sort of agonising mental checklist of things I'd promised myself to do. I hated it and felt responsible for it. But at the same time I loved it too; it was the nicest house we'd ever had. Contemplating the prospect of being away from it for a protracted period, I went all sentimental. Just thinking about the top-floor landing I'd been considering painting for two years made me dewy-eyed; and the idea of redecorating the spare room (and maybe even replacing the carpet, which had become so threadbare that recently even the cat disdained to use it for sharpening its claws) made me come over all soppy.
And the garden! Aaaah, the garden. What wasn't I going to do to the garden? The mere thought of the garden was enough to reduce me to a simpering, tearful jelly.
I thank the washing machine going on the blink for putting paid to all this mawkish nonsense. One day it took it into its head to overflow. This is not a very desirable state of affairs at the best of times, but it's a pretty catastrophic one when it's located as it is in our house in a bathroom at first-floor level. The water went straight through the floor and brought down the living-room ceiling. I was fond of that ceiling. But then again, I was fond of the books and CDs which we kept underneath it and their condition wasn't exactly improved by what happened.
'I suppose we're covered?' Em said anxiously as we surveyed the damage after getting back late from a night out with friends.
'Covered in the sense that at least we have a roof over our heads, if that's what you mean,' I replied grimly.
'I was thinking about insurance.'
'And I was trying not to,' I said. 'I don't know if we have enough of it to put this lot right.'
The collapsed ceiling reignited my desire to get out of London and put the whole day-to-day grind of ordinary life behind me, but it actually delayed my departure. I mean, I couldn't just dump everything on Em, could I? I couldn't just walk out on her without getting things cleared up.
So the next day I rang the claims department and put the whole idea of canals cruising behind me.CHAPTER 2
My first-ever trip on a canal boat started one grim, windswept day in the early 1970s at an old mill not far from where I was born in the East Midlands. I hadn't used all my holiday that year so after scouring a pile of brochures offering everything from an expensive two weeks in Spain to an exorbitant fortnight in the Seychelles, Em finally suggested that I might care to set my sights a little lower and consider somewhere a bit closer to home.
How about renting a canal boat? She'd taken a canal boat holiday with some university friends one summer a year or two before and she'd had a great time. What was more, holidays on canal boats were cheap. So cheap that if I were able to convince my best friend Dave to split the costs for the first week, she might be able to afford to join me for the second.
So it was that some time afterwards Dave and I found ourselves trudging through mud in a rainstorm, attempting to negotiate a footpath across a field where someone had directed us as a short cut to a boatyard we'd been struggling to find for an hour. From this boatyard we were scheduled to take command of a thirty-foot narrowboat nautically resplendent with the name Nelson.
Neither of us, it has to be said, was in the best of humours that morning. The truth was we were both suffering monumental hangovers as a result of a binge the previous night. For this, I take entire responsibility. I'd casually suggested to Dave that we might go for 'a drink', but I knew it was unlikely we'd stop at just one drink. Indeed, I'd known we were unlikely to stop drinking until we were totally rat-arsed.
But this was what I'd intended. It was a strategy. And it was a carefully engineered one too.
You see, I've known Dave for a very long time. We were at school together, and over the years I've come to respect him as someone who has his feet firmly planted on the ground. He's a realist, a pragmatist. He recognises things for what they are, not for what he hopes they might be.
He'd been enthusiastic enough about the project at the outset when we'd talked vaguely about lunches at thatched waterside pubs and long languid afternoons cruising. But what seemed like a good idea in mid-August when the sun was shining and there was still some life left in summer seemed not quite such an attractive proposition a few weeks later after our booking had been confirmed, and the weather had broken, and the isobars were in place for what was to become one of the vilest autumns for a decade.
As we'd got closer to our start date, Dave's enthusiasm had waned as every successive day brought another cheerless weather forecast delivered by lugubrious meteorologists who seemed to take personal delight in delivering bad news.
But that's the sort of person Dave is. We all listen to weather forecasts. It's just that he's the sort of guy who takes them seriously. 'It's not as if we'll lose a lot of money,' he tentatively suggested on the eve of our departure. 'If we just didn't turn up, I mean ...'
We'd finished the night in predictable fashion with one of those caustic vindaloos made from horse meat marinated in Nitromors which we were so fond of then. By this time the alcohol had well and truly kicked in, and not only had Dave regained his former enthusiasm, but he'd become positively swashbuckling about the whole venture.
'Do you think a man like me's gonna be put off by a drop of rain?' he announced contemptuously to the bemused waiter in the Star of India. 'Do you think I care a monkey's about a bit of bad weather?' he'd asked the Marks and Spencer's mannequins in the High Street as we'd stumbled home. 'I mean, Steve ...' he'd appealed to me as I attempted to get him to bed, 'I mean, do you think I'm a soft-centred wuss or something?'
I took some pleasure in reminding him of all this as we were traipsing across the field looking for the boatyard. By this stage the rain was hammering down with the force of a power shower, and I think it had dawned on both of us that starting a holiday with the remnants of two and a half gallons of lager slopping around our insides wasn't exactly guaranteed to launch proceedings on a positive note.
Dave had got his own problems. His curry had begun to repeat on him. He'd already eaten it four times. I'd eaten it three times with him.
'You're making me feel sick,' I said.
'I already feel sick,' he countered. 'I feel like puking, and I want a crap too. Do you think the boat will have a toilet?'
'No,' I replied. 'I think we'll be expected to stand on the roof and evacuate downwind.'
Nelson actually turned out to be a well-appointed, tidy boat; and, for its time, modern enough. It had a steel hull with a fibreglass superstructure, and inside there was a compact lounge with an L-shaped banquette built around a small table set in the floor. Next to it was an open-plan galley with a cooker that had a couple of gas rings; and at the front of the boat – the pointed end – the end we learnt we'd now have to call 'the bow' – there were two single berths.
To Dave's relief there was even a lavatory of sorts, though his delight at discovering its existence was somewhat mitigated by learning that the system worked on a rudimentary 'bucket-and- chuck it' principle in which, rather than wave your waste products goodbye, you bid them a sort of brief au revoir.
'You empty it when it gets full. There are special sanitary points,' said Mr Boatyard Man. 'You'll soon get used to it. Not a problem.' This seemed to be his friendly and all-embracing response to everything to do with boating. Steering this thirty-foot monster by way of a tiller which you had to point in the opposite direction to the way you wanted to go?
Not a problem; we'd get used to it.
Taking the lid off the box in the back and fishing around in the slimy water if anything got wound or trapped around the propeller?
Not a problem; we'd get used to it.
And locks? That extraordinary system whereby water travels up and downhill taking boats with it? That mystery of beams and ratchets and paddles and gates that you had to open and close in exactly the right order at exactly the right time to prevent emptying the canal of water and thus avoid causing such floods and mayhem and disaster that it could threaten the safety of the State and the future of mankind?
'Not a problem,' said Mr Boatyard Man, sheltering under his umbrella as he waved us off from the quay. There wasn't the vaguest notion in his head that he ought to initiate us into some of these mysteries, if only for the welfare of his boat, let alone our safety.
'Not a problem,' he said again. 'You'll get used to it all.'
The extent to which we knew absolutely nothing about canals or boats became apparent at the first lock we encountered. We were suddenly confronted by a man screaming at us in such a tone of voice I was inclined to believe he'd recently been involved in a contretemps involving his testicles and a disgruntled dog.
We couldn't understand it. We thought we were doing well. Dave had steered Nelson through the lock and out the other end without any evidence of major damage to either brickwork or boat; and by a combination of pure luck and the application of O Level physics, I'd managed to figure out how the thing worked and had just dropped the metal ratchets that close the paddles that control the water flow.
This, it turned out, was the problem. These paddles were made of cast iron and dropping them in the way I had so that they crashed shut could easily have broken them. Paddles, I learned, had to be treated with care and lowered gently. Like so much else on the canals in that era, they were worn out, and there just wasn't money available to repair them.
It was a steep learning curve all round that day, but Dave and I persevered and we got better as we went along, so that we were able to get a few miles under our belt without further mishap. Then, as a result of some minor inattentiveness, one or the other of us managed to run Nelson onto a mudbank where we couldn't get her to move an inch despite heaving and pushing and straining on ropes and bargepoles.
It was exasperating. While she'd been floating, she'd been elegant and graceful, so insubstantial we could move her with our fingertips. Now she was like a beached whale. She'd become ungainly and unyielding, downright cussed. We sat back, breathless after our futile exertions.
'That'll learn you,' said an old bloke who at that moment happened to be passing by with a rodent-like Jack Russell terrier. 'You were going too fast.'
Dave was knackered and not in the mood for criticism. 'We were within the speed limit,' he snapped in a tone of voice that set the dog off yapping.
'Sod the speed limit! You were going too fast,' the old man retorted. 'Bloody wave behind you that you could surf on, washing away the banks! No wonder the canal's so bloody shallow hereabouts.'
Well, there was no denying the truth of that. Even to beginners like us it was apparent that canal depth was more of a concept than a physical reality. In fact, looking back at that trip, it was a wonder we ever got anywhere given that for most of our route there was so little water that strictly speaking we weren't floating at all, but rather floundering through mud. What we laughingly called 'cruising' could be more accurately described as 'ploughing'. I swear it was so bad that in places you could have walked along the cut with no need for a boat at all. But that was the way of things in those days when no one dredged the canals.
The fact was they'd been all but abandoned. That was part of their charm. Cruising them, you found a secret, undiscovered world which was of the present, yet somehow separate from it. The canals were winding, overgrown ribbons of water that took you across aqueducts and over embankments, and through cuttings and bat-filled tunnels to a world that was unchanged for centuries. Or they were black inaccessible ditches tucked away behind factories and leading to the dark, oily recesses of cities unfamiliar even to the people who lived in them.
Where contemporary life touched at all it seemed to turn its back on the canal. Houses faced away from the water, and there were great rusty tracts of corrugated-iron fencing all over the place separating people from it. On a boat you felt like a fugitive in your own land, ignored and spurned, with voles your only company, their tiny noses forming a V-shaped wash in the water as they cut across your course on their way from one bank to another.
Excerpted from One Man - and A - Narrowboat by Steve Haywood. Copyright © 2009 Steve Haywood. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This was a surprisingly entertaining and interesting book. The author leaves London for a long stay on the canals, and makes his travels (and his staying put) a very good read. In between you learn a lot about Tom Rolt, Robert Aickman, Elisabeth Jane Howard, and the IWA