On a day when, according to Derrick, the computerised telemetry system has clearly failed, canal folk stare despondently into the decreasing shallows of the Kennet and Avon. In the two hours passed in the company of my inland waterway guru, many people, encouraged by the knowledge emanating from his high viz jacket, stop to ask questions that, when consolidated, comprise ‘what’s happened to the water?’ … or words to that effect. Some want to know if there’s more of the wet stuff up ahead, as if an imaginary line might exist somewhere in the direction of Devizes at which point things will be back to normal. A place in the future where, employing the usual canal mentality, problems prior to the current resting place of the tiller can be left for someone else to sort out; a sort of sink-hole in which we could dump and forget unwanted entities like Donald Trump, terrorism, and a lack of water.
One person makes the mistake of suggesting the water problem is due to a paddle being left somewhere or other causing the failure of a lock gate. ‘Rubbish’, dismisses the expert, time and time again. ‘It’s the telemetry system’.
Reader, in case you haven’t noticed, in the straight-lined world of the Kennet and Avon Canal, I’m on a super-fast learning curve. You have to be. They talk in tongues in these parts and I am linguistically challenged. I’m still trying to work out what sort of paddle might be stuck in a lock. Why do we need a paddle? And if we did need a paddle, why would we leave it in a lock? But there’s a more important question. I’m a person who likes to get to the nitty gritty and when I’m interviewing, I use all the skills developed in the ‘university of the bleeding obvious’. Derrick, meanwhile, is a graduate with expertise in explaining his version of the bleeding obvious to persons who have only achieved D minus in engineering for the downright stupid.
My question is, ‘what is a telemetry system?’ I can’t even say it. I pronounce the first part as if I was saying telephone rather than in the requisite musical rhythm whereby the first ‘e’ is almost bypassed. I continue: ‘it’s just that I’ve noticed people looking a bit blank this morning when you’ve used that word (so beautifully, I hasten to add)’. My leader takes a kindly approach: ‘do you know what I love about you Alison?’ (Do I want to know the answer?) Apparently, it’s the way I let people know that one must never assume that everyone else understands the bleeding obvious. And thus, unwittingly, I speak for multitudes who want to know why traversing the canal is so tricky today.
Following an explanation, and convincing myself that I now understand telemetries, if that’s even a word, but making a note to later Google this new phenomenon, I push on bravely: ‘I have another stupid question’. The expert puts on his reassuring hat: ‘there’s no such thing as a stupid question, Alison’, he advises me.
‘Well’, I continue, ‘where is all the missing water?’ There’s no getting away from the fact that he’s looking at me as if I’ve asked the most stupid question ever.
I generally accompany my blogs with photos. There are none that explain the missing water because I didn’t take any snaps of the canal first thing. Having failed to notice the bleeding obvious, I’d not seen anything interesting enough so here’s a nice dog called Barney who we meet at Semington.
The last time I was at Semington, I’d walked there from Bradford on Avon on one of my jaunts along the canal. I recall that the weather was glorious: a strip-off-your-cardigan-at-an-early-hour type of day. Meteorologically, things couldn’t have been more different this morning. It wasn’t quite hats and gloves but it would’ve been had I thought to bring them. There might not be much water in the Kennet and Avon, but there’s plenty in the air. We’ve come to look at hedges. This is the kindness of my leader: having already increased my expertise of dry stone walls from nothing to sufficient to be published nationally, he’s now sharing his knowledge of hedging.
To be honest, I’d anticipated it would be a little boring but today I learned something important. When a person walks the canal for pleasure, there’s a natural tendency to look at the canal; admire the canal boats; stroke all the friendly canal dogs; exchange greetings with people aboard boats; listen to gossip from canal-side fisher folk – that sort of thing. Seldom do the ambler’s eyes look elsewhere unless a previously unseen heron chooses to fly gracefully from one bankside hiding place to another. Or one is lucky enough to sit and watch the magnificence of red kites soaring over the north Wessex downs. Certainly, unless the way is made dangerous by mud, one never looks down. Unless you’re a cyclist.
There’s a downside to dressing in a high viz jacket. You become the target of those who like to complain which is why I’m not investing in anything of a luminous yellow nature. Apparently, cyclists complain a lot about thorns on the towpath. As a walker of the Kennet and Avon, I don’t much care for cyclists. People on wheels believe they always have the right of way. I’m never in a hurry and generally stand aside because cyclists are inevitably pressed for time. Thorns impede their progress. And thorns come from hedges along the towpath. The Canals and River Trust (CRT) contract professionals to cut back the annual growth of the hedges to preclude impediment of the towpath. However, animals or wind disturb the cuttings and those irritating little thorns blow onto the towpath. Enter the CRT volunteers who use the cuttings to make woven fences where, previously, there was no hedge.
So, what I learned was to also look away from the canal at the aesthetically pleasing border that provides a runway for animals. From Semington, in the direction of Hilperton, they’ve covered 400 yards at a rate of 10 yards a day. And because the volunteers are so ecologically and environmentally aware, it all has to be done by the end of March and the start of the nesting season.
Reader, you know I like to write blog posts with my tongue stuck somewhere in my cheek. Today, as I discover what is far from bleeding obvious, it’s not possible. Later, we go to Whaddon where the teams are clearing the bank of overgrown foliage and constructing a new set of steps. The weather has closed in but these men continue to make good progress. Here’s an ex-ocean liner captain, engineers of various types and other professionals committing hours of retirement time, in good spirits, to the well-being of those parts of the canal that people like me hadn’t even noticed before, having taken it all for granted. Never ignore the bleeding obvious.