Friday, August 22, 2008

If I want pretty, I'll buy a Cath Kidson tablecloth

Day 24, Teddington Lock to Little Venice

Oh frabjous day, calloo callay, she chortled in her joy, as she sat three deep amongst the narrowboats and houseboats, just outside the pool at Little Venice, as the traffic whistled by, what a long way we have come today.

We woke up just before the alarm went off at six this morning, ready for our passage through Teddington at seven, to more miserable wet rain. Lots of the cruisers had already gone off earlier, and the Dutch barges were going through the barge lock. We'd thought the launch lock was out of action as there were divers working in it yesterday, but this morning it was all systems go, and through we went, the Duck inseperably at our side. The short tidal stretch was no harder than the rest of the Thames had been, although there were some interesting sights.

The most exciting thing was the wash from other boats, hitting the hull of Lucky Duck and rebounding over our fore end, insinuating its way under the hatch and dampening the bedclothes. One boat this morning created such waves that I could see myself becoming sea sick, and these didn't abate, so maybe it was the sea after all. After a bit of this we saw a big sign saying Grand Union Canal and there was much rejoicing among the ranks. We made the hairpin turn up the channel to be faced with a pair of locks. When the gates of one began to open at our approach, I nearly cried. It felt like being welcomed home after a long absence.
On the advice of the lock keeper, we took the Ducks through to the 14 day morings in what I subsequently realised with some dismay was the former Brentford Docks, and there we left them, with hot showers at their disposal and a fortnight to cure what ails them. We then teamed up with Sarah and Peter on Colleen Bawn to tackle Hanwell Locks. What joy to be doing some physical work again instead of just wearing my nerves out. The sun came out - I kid you not - almost the moment we were through Brentford Lock and it was a lovely afternoon. We had one slightly hairy moment, when confronted with a bloody great, heavily (and somewhat precariously) laden, barge closely pursued by a pusher tug. The conversation went like this:
Jim: What the fuck is that?
Me: I don't know but I think it has precedence in the bridge hole...

Sadly, I only managed to photograph it after we had effected our passing manoeuvre, which doesn't quite capture its impressiveness. Little Venice of course is chocca, but I was surprised at how many 14 day moorings slightly further out had no boats on them at all. One thing we were very grateful to Sarah and Peter for was reminding us that this Sunday and Monday sees the Notting Hill Carnival, which I think we would probably quite like to avoid. So the plan we made on the hoof is to play host to Vicky and Craig tomorrow, and trundle up the Regents Canal, and then hot-foot it up the Lee for a copule of days until things quieten down, before proceeding north. Another river, so soon....

I was pondering earlier, why is it that I love this muddy ditch, this man-made linear lake, so much better than the noble, natural, roaring river? Why does it grab at my vitals and make me smile with joy in a way that even the prettiest river can't? It's not because it's safer, or easier. Easier for the steerer, maybe, but usually that's not me. Going up Hanwell this afternoon after doing nothing but sit on my arse and hold a rope for more than a week, has left me aching, but alive again. And even if it is safer, objectively, I never felt in danger on the river (although I did sometimes fear for other people's plastic boats).

I love its hiddenness, its foreignness; its very un-naturalness. I love the humanity of its history and the clues to that which remain. I love the fact that human ingenuity and human determination created it, and in many cases restored it, in both cases often against enormous odds. I love canals because they shouldn't exist, by the laws of nature and of economics, just as by the laws of physics the bumble bee shouldn't fly. But they do.

The buildings - the factories, the derelict warehouses, the grimly functional hives of industry - may be ugly, but at least they were built for a practical purpose, not just because someone (a great many people, it would seem) had infinitely more money than taste. They are surroundings you can interact with, within sight and touching distance; ours, not the noli me tangeri of the riverbank. The canal is not an adversary, to be fought and subdued, like the river. Not a natural feature tamed by man, but a man made one tamed and softened by nature.

I boated first on the Broads, then rivers, then the Fens. Last of all came canals. But when I first landed on the Huddersfield Broad with Andante, it was the same feeling as when (at the age of 29) I first went to university. It felt like coming home.

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