The lock keeper’s role

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Bradford on Avon boasts the busiest wharf on the Kennet and Avon Canal. It’s obvious, therefore, why it’s necessary to have six lock keepers to hand at any one time. Actually, there are more but a shortage of chairs means that one has been relegated to team photographer. If it’s unclear exactly what these folk do, there’s no better source to turn to than the Canal and River Trust (CRT).

The CRT note that the lock keeper ‘is a really important role steeped in history and tradition … although this has changed over time’. For example, they now do it sitting down. Further, ‘working outdoors and staying fit have been key incentives’. These days, the emphasis is on the former.

Another important facet of the CRT job description is ‘greeting and assisting boats’. This contemporary illustration will inform future students that, in the twenty-first century, this task was performed from a distance and in chorus.

Finally, CRT notes that it’s ‘important to feel part of a friendly and supportive team’. Well, you only need to look at the photograph to see this manifested wharf-side at Bradford on Avon. Where else would so many people be happy to share one apple and two flasks of gin?

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All aboard!

DSCN0260Good Friday and after the skin-penetrating dampness of yesterday, this morning’s weather is as perfect as is possible to be. Down on the wharf, men and machines have made an early start in a bid to restore the pump to working order. It seems they’ve retrieved a section of boat decking that was jamming the impeller. However, a passing stranger informs me that the pump at Crofton is also out and more men are on their way to try and remedy the water levels. So that will teach me for being inquisitive – I’m none the wiser and have yet more words to look up.

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This is the day that I become a trainee crew member aboard the Barbara McLellan as it transports Easter holidaymakers on a five hour trip down to the Dundas Aqueduct and back. I’m more than a little anxious and far too early so I sit on a bench with Tom and Gwen who’ve just walked along the canal from Staverton. Gwen tells me about their walk and Tom says nothing. Gwen tells me about their daughter who’s at Portsmouth University and has to spend an extra day there to clean up her room. Tom says nothing. I tell Gwen what I’m doing today and Gwen says she thinks it would be a jolly good idea if Tom undertook some volunteering. Tom looks in the other direction. I see some people in red sweatshirts gathered by the Barbara McLellan. They are the crew members and I bid my farewells to Gwen. And Tom.

DSCN0272My job is in the galley. I have little idea what’s involved but someone’s just delivered a pan of pea and mint soup and another containing sweet potato and carrot. Well, I think that’s what they are but, subsequently, matters will be simplified when then the options are referred to as green and orange. There’s also bread and butter, both of which require cutting, and chunks of cheese. Oh yes, and croissants and pastries so no-one’s going hungry but things have to be done in a certain order. Eamon is, apparently, in charge of the galley and by default, in charge of me. However, Elspeth says that Eamon’s too busy cleaning the outside of the boat. Skipper pokes his head round the corner to say there may be trouble ahead. It’s ok though: Eamon arrives tout de suite and all is well.

DSCN0266The passengers are eager to come aboard. In all the excitement/confusion/panic of learning what’s expected, I’d totally forgotten there would be paying guests. Fortunately, there are only ten of them and, like canal dogs, they’re an enthusiastic and friendly bunch. Elspeth plays the health and safety tape which makes me a little nervous: the calming voice tells the passengers not to worry if someone falls overboard or there’s a fire as the crew have had in-depth training. Actually, ‘in-depth’ might not be appropriate here. The voice also informs the passengers that members of the crew can be identified by their red sweatshirts or their name badge. I have neither and there’s still no sign of the whistles. I take the orders for teas and coffees and introduce myself just so they know I’m not one of them. And we’re off into my first ever lock.

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It’s wonderful. It’s the first trip of the season and once we’ve worked out what’s supposed to happen, it all falls into place. Crew-wise, we have a dream team. My new friends advise me that the experience of volunteering on a canal boat is tempered by the Skipper. Having come into contact with one or two canal ‘types’, I can understand this. We are lucky enough to have Graeme who is funny and kind and lets everyone have a go at everything, but is also super-responsible and reliable. Mike is ‘mate’. He’s a bit posh and ‘old school’ but, once the pastries and coffees have been dealt with, I’m (tentatively) up at the helm with him as we navigate the Avoncliff aqueduct.

DSCN0286A couple of hours later, the green and orange having been disposed of, we reach Dundas and the passengers disembark to stretch their boat legs. We have a book in which our skills are signed off and Eamon only has to secure a turn of the boat in order to achieve skipper status; which is accomplished in time to retrieve our holidaymakers. And whilst he’s doing this, Mike broadens my canal trivia by telling me about the 200 hundred years old crane that used to lift coal, wheat and other goods that had been transported from elsewhere.

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On the return journey, I sit at the front with the lady passengers and we discuss the sexism practised in bowling clubs and the lack of helmswomen on the canal. Skipper arrives without warning to point out that, as I’ve chosen to be in this position, I should be looking out for oncoming boats and making the appropriate signals to the man at the helm. Skipper says there are ample opportunities for women to be at the helm if they’d only stop chatting and laughing. He is booed soundly by the paying persons who threaten to throw him overboard.

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Skipper requests my presence at the helm and I learn a lot about steering a large boat down a canal past other boats. It’s so much more difficult than it looks when Tim and Pru do it. Skipper says I can have so many things ticked off in my book. Forlornly, I picture the forgotten book laying on my bedroom floor in Poole. I know – I’ll write my own book!

 

 

 

Contemplating the bleeding obvious

telemetryOn 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’.

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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.

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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.

 

 

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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 DSCN0235never 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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

Man overboard!

DSCN0121Occasionally, even the most organised of perfect Virgos find ourselves central to something whence we ask ‘how the hell did I get here?’ Take last Friday for instance. It was a strangely sunny morning in Trowbridge. I’d passed an uneventful night chez Bartlett. They have some new cats now so there’s no need for the man of the house to be up all hours attending to the needs of the previous zombie felines; the mewing, walking dead. No international cricket matches on either that required him to comprise his county’s contingent of a global television audience. For Wiltshire, it was relatively normal.

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Spookily, however, by the time I got to the other side of this small town, a thick fog had descended; although, once I reached Bradford on Avon, the sun had reappeared and the sky was a welcome shade of blue. Despite the many miles I’ve trudged alongside the Kennet and Avon, and the hundreds of words I’ve written on towpath observations, both here and in the other country, I was about to embark on my first ever canal trip by boat. During the course of this, there would be five calls of ‘man overboard’ and one ‘fire in the galley’ necessitating an emergency mooring. See what I mean about ‘how the hell…?’

DSCF5618It began badly. What amounted to verbal fistycuffs took place on the quay before we’d even boarded. I’ve noticed this about folk who mean well on the canal: it’s nothing short of a major power struggle. These are very nice men (and never women) who are driven by a need to be ‘IN CHARGE’. There are too many titles. In this case, we had a Boatmaster, a skipper and a chairman. Both the new volunteers attending the health and safety training, and those more experienced, did the right thing and looked away; and sniggered behind our hands. Fortunately, there was something else interesting to look at: a swan had managed to become trapped between the lock gates and other canal volunteers were busy on a rescue mission. They filled the lock with water, then, opened the gates so the errant bird could glide serenely through. The swan had a bubble coming out of its head saying ‘and?’ We were about to clap but were called to account by the leader of the moment demanding to know if we were paying attention. Well, no, now you come to ask. Skipper and the Boatmaster were in a bloody heap on the towpath.

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An interim explanation of sorts: wanting to give something back to the canal, I applied to be a volunteer writer. At first, I found myself subject to the control of a patriarchal elite to whom the concept of freedom of speech has yet to be introduced. Subsequently, however, I met Derrick who is a ‘good sort’, driven by the well-being of the Kennet and Avon. He introduced me to the local chairman who, upon agreeing to be interviewed, somehow recruited me to volunteer crew without me even noticing that I’d been aquatically groomed. Clever stuff that. Today marks our three hour session of essential health and safety training.

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 Nemo-like, we set sail in the direction of Hilperton but just as I was relaxing into the trip, ‘man overboard’ was called. Clearly, I hope, they can’t actually throw a man overboard. They threw a safety ring over instead. People who seemed to know what was occurring – that is, everyone except me – jumped to stations in an attempt to rescue the ring. They crawled along the gunwales like watery mountain goats, doing stuff with poles and ladders. Let’s face it, five minutes ago, I didn’t even know what a gunwale was. And now I do, there’s no way I’m going on one. It might’ve worked if everyone else on the canal knew a training exercise was taking place. That might’ve stopped the owner of a moored canal boat assuming the ring had accidentally fallen and helpfully prodding the ‘body’ with a long pole.

DSCN0127‘Fire in the galley’ and I’m in charge of the first-aid bag which is quite cumbersome. When a fire is spotted, a member of crew is supposed to blow their whistle. This alerts the rest of the crew without frightening the passengers by mentioning the word ‘fire’. We didn’t have any whistles so the woman next to me shouted ‘whistle’ three times. That’ll do it then. Everyone except me and the person in charge of the phone evacuated the boat on which ‘skipper’ had executed an emergency mooring. Sadly, your author is not fleet of foot: hindered considerably by the enormous first-aid equipment, I had to be helped down the gangplank and back ashore. If you click on this picture, you’ll see how far from the bank we were at the point of escape. Any further and the ‘man overboard’ and ‘fire in the galley’ exercises could’ve been carried out simultaneously.

DSCN0123The chairman accidentally put the emergency phone in his pocket and skipper forgot to remove the hammer and peg that secured the mooring. Thus, ten minutes back into the return journey, a conscientious passer-by was chasing our boat downstream with said implements. Yet another emergency stop was made to retrieve the hammer and pin at which juncture, the Boatmaster demanded to know why we’d crashed into the bank. Meanwhile, I’d been asked to play the part of an awkward passenger and stepped readily into role. ‘You’re very good at this’, remarked one of the more established crew members as I complained noisily about the number of people falling off the boat. ‘Years of practice’, I replied, demanding complementary alcohol.

DSCN0139Eventually, we arrived safely back at Bradford on Avon, as will you dear reader should you wish to join us. Next time, I’ll be a real-life member of the galley crew journeying down the canal to the Dundas Aqueduct. Come aboard – if you dare.

 

 

 

 

The lock keeper’s story

DSCF1112In an earlier posting, I mentioned the lock keeper’s cottage on the edge of Freeman’s Marsh outside Hungerford. Now in a sorry state of disrepair, this once picturesque abode would have typified the accommodation of keepers of the lock, both canal and river-based, up and down the country in times past.

To me, these cottages conjure idealistic visions: places of romance, rural intrigue, comings and goings, exchange of news. Some or all of this might be true enough but, despite the desirable residency of the post, and an almost autonomous responsibility, the life of the lock keeper was not wholly idyllic. He was expected to operate and maintain the lock twenty four hours a day, seven days a week; (women were prohibited by law from becoming keepers of the lock in 1831). Despite everything, many craved the position of lock keeper, concomitant life being far preferable to that in the urban tenements of industrialisation.

DSCF1173Maintaining the lock and surrounding water-edged countryside also included offering whatever aid was needed to water-borne travellers, including the rescue of those who had fallen into the canal or river. Sometimes, the keeper was allowed to retain the tolls paid by those whose boats passed through the lock. Where the authorities took these payments, they occasionally offered the keeper a small stipend. Either way, it was a poor living so lock keepers and their families made the most of the generally large plots of land that surrounded their cottage. All sorts of enterprises have been recorded which mostly centred on the provision of goods that could be sold to those who traversed the canal. Kitchen gardens were substantial as was animal husbandry. Some of the more enterprising built bread ovens, brewed cider or beer, made cheese and a surprising number were bee keepers.

lockeeper002Of course, as the commercial nature of the canals declined, so too did the need for a professional lock keeper. Here, in a photograph held by Bradford on Avon Museum, is George Andrews who was the keeper of the lock in that town in 1925. Behind him, you can see his cottage. Today, George’s house comprises the tea rooms on the wharf. In a somewhat torturous, but eventually successful, arrangement, the freehold of his erstwhile home is owned by the Canals and Rivers Trust (CRT). The Kennet and Avon Trust secure the leasehold from the CRT and they sub-let to the far less bureaucratic and thankfully more down-to-earth Victoria to serve tea and cakes. I love Victoria. On this informative but wind- penetrating expedition, she provided me with a delicious cup of FREE steaming coffee just for standing next to a bloke in a high viz jacket!

ADSCN0014nd the lock keeper? Well, handing one’s CV into the local dole office with ‘lock keeper’ as your main desirable employment is not likely to get you far these days. However, a brief look at the website of the CRT will quickly alert you to several relevant vacancies. This is the delightful and unassuming Richard, one of today’s volunteer lock keepers at Bradford on Avon wharf. Richard’s one of those people you unexpectedly bump into when waiting for someone else; one of those folk who, once he’s started talking, you wish you had another two hours to spare to listen to.

Richard, a merchant navy engineer in another incarnation, has been a volunteer lock keeper for six years and told me all the things I should have known: his lock, at 11 feet 6inches in old money, is the second deepest on the Kennet and Avon. The deepest, somewhat unimaginatively named Bath Deep Lock, is the deepest IN THE COUNTRY. All very well me putting that in capitals – some of today’s local commentators were a little dismissive of the Bath construction claiming it comprised two locks conjoined so ‘it would be wouldn’t it’. Richard’s lock is also one of the busiest in the country. Normally. Interestingly, it’s not busy today:

‘The Avon’s too full’, says Richard in passing.

‘Too full of what’, the cub reporter enquires? Boats, I think but don’t posit.

‘Too full of water. Dangerously fast water’, the expert informs me. ‘And there’s a bridge down at Seend’, he continues. So, nowhere much for the boats to go, but plenty of opportunity for repairs. I am sucked into this world and its inhabitants. I am a walking anorak. Dare I ask whether there are many mishaps at Bradford on Avon wharf? Am I looking for glamour where it’s not required?

‘Well’, replies the poker- faced Richard, ‘we had two sunken boats in the lock last year. Would that be the sort of thing you’re interested in?’ Yes, oh yes. I try not to appear too excited.

In order to understand how the narrow boats sunk, I am obliged to stand on a very muddy piece of grass close to the water’s edge whereupon tricky engineering issues are pointed out. There’s no way I can utilise either my notebook or my camera. I must now rely on my unreliable memory. Basically, a cill is a large piece of stone which juts out from the lock gate. The narrow boats enter the lock. The captains observe all the warning signs, of which there are many clearly displayed, and they stop their boat short of the cill. Unless, according to today’s lock keeper, they are ‘out of their skull on drink’ or are busy on their mobile telephones. Moving forward of the cill results in a flooded boat. ‘And’, he continues. ‘if you get sucked under into the dark, you won’t be coming out again’. More importantly, for everyone else, they cause the canal to be closed for a week. Use of a heavy crane is a non-starter because it will damage the lock so a proper salvage operation must be undertaken which costs the narrow boat owner £100,000.

I think about all those lock keepers surviving in times when there were no cranes or salvage operations of the type that Richard refers to. All of those men and their families intent on the safekeeping of the locks. And all of those whose living depended on the well-being of the canal.

I am indebted to a writing blog I discovered: https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2014/03/14/a-lock-keepers-cottage/ Sadly, the author gives no source for her piece on canals but she writes as one who has undertaken substantive research

 

A change of plans

DSCF1181The 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’.

DSCF1154I 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.

DSCF1155By 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.

DSCF1173DSCF1180I 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.

DSCF1164Christine 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.

DSCF1165Down below, on the track that runs alongside the Avon, and too far for the dying camera to cope with, Roger’s trying to cope with his ill-behaved group of ramblers:

‘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.

‘Stop!’

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.

DSCF1178As 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,

DSCF1182I 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.

 

canal tavernI 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.

 

 

 

The second walk

Great Bedwyn to Hungerford: 6 miles, 29 December 2015

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Frank is due tomorrow but on this most glorious of mornings there are a lot of people out and about on the canal. Due to early morning showers, the towpath is treacherous: in some places, the attempt to remain upright is painful as neither foot seems to want to remain in close proximity to the other. The water in the canal is especially high and the path has disappeared to leave a slippery incline just inches from the edge.

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Most of the folk on the first stretch are fishermen who kindly offer warnings regarding the dangers of walking the walk. Some are actually fishing; others stand around in groups.

‘Is it an event,’ I enquire?

‘No, it’s just a good spot for fishing’.

‘Can you eat the fish?’

‘Not unless you’re desperate’. You’d have to be. That water looks really murky. I stumble on wondering whether it’s time I owned some sort of walking aid.

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If there’s one thing you can depend upon along the canal, it’s dogs. The ones that introduce themselves today are variously named Sprouts, Roxy, Truffle, Rosie and Bullseye but there are others who don’t stop to speak. Although there are quite a few Labradors around this morning, many of the canal canines appear to be related to Sooty. Heading towards Little Bedwyn, I spy a black and white head looking out from the slats of a wooden gate. Whilst trying to organise my dying camera, Sprouts – for it is he – gives a warning bark before an invisible hand grabs the head from the gate.

DSCF1087A young man, busy doing something or other with a hammer, some nails and a wooden frame, advises me that Sprouts is an excellent guard dog. Sprouts ignores him and squeezes out between the gate slats. He sniffs me in a not unfriendly manner and accepts a few strokes of the head.

‘He’s not like that with most people’ comments the owner. Most people don’t smell of all the dogs on the canal I think but don’t say.

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A couple of miles further along, Bullseye is sitting down guarding the prow of his barge. He appears to be tied up and I wonder whether he’ll be friendly. However, as I arrive, Bullseye, who has clearly been involved in some sort of Indian rope trick, rushes down the plank to greet me. Fortunately, he offers felicitations sufficient for me to attempt a photo. Just as I take the snap, I notice Bill Sykes smoking a roll up out of a window further down the barge. He’s looking at me in a way that demands an explanation. For breathing, possibly.

‘I’m taking photos of canal dogs this morning’, I say, showing him my camera by way of evidence.

‘Did he smile’, Bill demands gruffly? Through a grimy window, I notice Nancy and a selection of Fagin’s lads quivering within. Much later, when Jeff asks whether I’ve seen many water gypsies, an image of Bullseye’s family will flash into my head and I will feel guilty and a tiny bit afraid.

Here are some other canal dogs

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Approaching Hungerford Marsh at a steady pace, I reach Cobblers Lock and, from a distance, see what must have once been the lock keeper’s cottage. It looks idyllic but, once opposite, I find it to be in a dreadful state of disrepair. It’s been stripped out and I wonder whether somebody is rebuilding it as another loved and lovely home.

Not too far away, on the same side of the canal, is a brand new house: huge, white and totally lacking in charm. I didn’t take a photo seeing no need to but I wish I had. I’d already heard rumours of a new marina and hotel in the area and shortly after leaving Cobblers Lock, a passing dog walker told me that the owners of the cottage had sold the land to a developer and built the ugly new house with the proceeds. I don’t really have a view either way, and I guess a marina for twenty boats will bring money to the area if it ever happens.

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The rest of the walk into Hungerford is delightful. The canal is virtually straight as it passes through Freeman’s Marsh which is protected meadowland of special scientific interest. In the near distance, I see the church tower and the beginnings of Hungerford but before that Jeff is waiting.

 

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Jeff says the best people on the canal are the fishermen who are, he claims, the only people that don’t talk to strangers. Well, plenty of fisherfolk have been kind enough to speak to me, especially to warn me of the lethal state of the towpath this morning. In any case, Jeff never stops talking or catching fish – tiny roach. Jeff’s been married twice but he thinks he’s allergic to it. He wants to know what I’m up to and I make the mistake of mentioning the canal trust. Jeff’s been in correspondence with the trust for many years, man and boy. I feel obliged to ask why. It seems that the main problem is boats that overstay their welcome. On further investigation, I determine that this means any boat that’s moored anywhere on the canal where people need to fish. Jeff can quote all the relevant regulations and does just this when he finds out I know nothing about anything. Jeff tells me where he lives – Thatcham – and asks whether I’ll be travelling that way at any time in his remaining lifetime. Jeff asks if I know where I’ll be going for coffee in Hungerford but just as he’s about to make a plan of sorts, a stranger stops to ask an important question about roach. Jeff seems cross at this interruption but I take the opportunity to run away.

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In Hungerford, in a muddy state of disorder, I peer into a tempting vintage shop and see Lottie in her cage. ‘Oh, why is Lottie in a cage’, I demand passionately? But I already know the answer – so that she’s not kidnapped and forced to live a life on the canal as the sex slave of Bullseye. Lottie’s owner, probably in an attempt to rid her shop of a filthy old woman pronto, releases Lottie from the cage in order that a photo can be taken. Lottie is naturally ecstatic and jumps all over me gratefully taking in all the smells of all the dogs she will never meet.

Once I’ve partaken of an organic hot dog at the John of Gaunt, discovered that the Kennet and Avon Canal Trust joint will not open this side of Easter and ascertained that there are no trains due to return me to my car at Great Bedwyn, I’ve exhausted all that Hungerford has to offer. I enter a handy florist’s and ask whether such a thing as a taxi rank exists. Unexpectedly, the florist informs me that the rank is right outside the shop. Joy is short-lived:

‘Don’t expect a taxi along any time soon’, says the florist pleasantly. ‘In fact, don’t expect a taxi at all’. I am pointed in the direction of the telephone number of a taxi company on a map of Hungerford which is almost as big as Hungerford itself. I call the number but am directed to a voice mail service. I suppose they’re still on Christmas holidays. Just then, a people carrier arrives driven by Mike who has nothing to do with the missing taxi service. I happily pay him a suitable fee to take me to my car in the flooded, pot-holed area next to the canal bridge at Great Bedwyn.

‘Don’t go in’, I say, ‘it’s full of pot-holes’. Mike ignores me and turns in.

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‘Bloody hell’, he exclaims in surprise, ‘it’s full of flooded pot-holes. Do you want a card’, he asks? Too true my good man. You’re exactly the sort of person an independent traveller needs at the end of the year.

 

And now for something different: the view from the bridge at Hungerford looking west where the next part of my walk along the Kennet and Avon will begin. Watch this space.

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