The previous time I left the Western end of the Kennet and Avon was at the Midland Road Bridge in Bath. During the last week which, let’s be fair, I have stumbled through in some yet-to-be-rationalised distress, Saturday’s outing was to be nowhere near this canal. I’d intended to travel in the direction of some inner city location where flowers might be laid. Then it transpired that, having left without warning, he also departed without ceremony, not wanting anyone’s grief. As he latterly said, ‘if I never see the English evergreens I’m running to,it’s nothing to me’.
I thought to walk from Bath to somewhere or other but the English weather dictated otherwise. Snow is coming and if it never arrives, the roads from Poole will still be icy and dangerous. So, for the third time, I readjusted and decide to take a short walk – maybe a mere four miles – from Bradford on Avon to Avoncliff, along the canal and back by means of the river path. It’s an old and pleasing favourite.
By the time I reached Bradford, the temperature had resigned itself to not rising above freezing point but the morning was brightly optimistic after the incessant rainfall. I have a new ‘job’ as a volunteer writer for the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust and was hoping to speak with a few volunteers. It’s a non-starter as no-one is around so, with the air full of that wondrous wood smoke I now associate with winter barges, I pressed on alone. Save, no-one who likes to talk whilst walking the canal is ever alone.
I met Christine and cursed the dying/dead camera. In the last posting, I mentioned that the camera was fading. Now, my photographs disappear without reason. Christine was chopping wood at the side of the canal but you’ll have to take my word for that. She was gracious enough to let me capture her on film but, of this, there’s no evidence.
Christine and Alistair have been moored up near Avoncliff since September when they’d retired from jobs in Oxfordshire to live on the canal. I am rather envious, but not of her transposition to the life of a lumberjack. Alistair might have taken on this task but he’s inside and unseen. He’s poorly. When they lived in Henley, Alistair was Head Gardener on a number of projects in stately homes. It sounds idyllic. Whilst she’s creating the fuel for all this wonderful wood smoke, he’s safe inside. Christine was something high up in the county’s educational sector but she’d seen the writing on the wall: ‘fourteen curriculum changes in 30 years’; she was teaching the writing: ‘And now this lot’, she nods in the direction of Downing Street; or the Bullingdon Club. For Christine, the concept of shopping has changed somewhat since the Henley days of high-powered position: now she’s looking for replacement axe-heads and four-piece saws.
‘People at the front,’ he shouts, ‘stop!’
People at the front are deep in conversation and oblivious to Roger.
‘You at the front, stop’, as if they’re in Ypres and about to go over without precision. Nothing.
People at the front think they might have heard something and turn round. Roger’s caught up with them. He’s very animated – arms are windmill-waving as he points to the end of his group and leads his team up the muddy bank towards the canal. Some braver members of the brigade point out this strategic error and they all turn, as one, back to the river.
As I leave the shade and shadows, the canal is dressed in sheets of ice and I meet Mickey. He’s been ill for two weeks: ‘like everyone else’, he informs me. Mickey and his unseen wife have been on the canal for a year now. ‘We were on the Medway for eight years before we got flooded’, he explains. ‘Water came up 15 feet and we were nearly on the football pitch, so we came over here’.
I’m struggling to understand any of this and have an image of this modern-day Noah guiding his barge away from the lost canal, from the flooded football pitch, and mysteriously landing round the corner from the Avoncliff Viaduct,
I arrive at the inhospitable Cross Guns where, despite the appalling temperature, they still make you take another walk outside to use the facilities. I partake of a seemingly ancient cup of coffee and write my notes. This must be the only place in the universe where no-one gives a stuff whether you’re writing about them. And I return to Bradford via the icy track along the river.
I would say there’s little to recommend The Canal Tavern. Their Wiltshire Ham and Cheese Wrap was disappointing, although the salad was surprisingly avante-garde. But tonight, when I am long-gone, they will host a Bowie party. For the time being, they have, on their very large screen, something called Vintage TV on which I watch the man, because there is no escape.