Tags: canal boat, Emma Smith, ice cream, Maiden's Trip.
Since our canal holiday earlier this year, I’ve been a lot more aware of the canal boats I see everyday. I often cycle along the Regent’s Canal towpath on my way to work, and can also see a little bit of it from my flat (a view that’s slowly being eroded by new buildings). There are a real mix of boats, from floating wrecks to beautifully cared for boats with painted names and extensive miniature-gardens of flowers, vegetables and herbs. You get to know some of them for short (or longer) periods of time, depending on the mooring regulations upon particular stretches of the canal (some moorings are long term; some are for a fortnight only).
After getting back from our Kennet & Avon jaunt, I read Emma Smith’s Maiden’s Trip, a fictionalised version of the writer’s experiences working on a barge during the war, when women were called in to help with the vital work of moving cargoes around the country via its waterways. She vividly describes the hardships – and pleasures – of life on the boats, from bad weather and bed bugs to tinned milk cocoa and kedgeree for tea. The maiden’s trip takes them from Limehouse Basin (15 minutes cycle ride from my flat), where they load up, to Birmingham and Coventry and back. The views from the canal encompass desolate and dirty urban wastelands as well unspoiled glorious countryside. They meet a range of people along the way and find friends and rivals among the barge folk, from those for who it’s just a day job to those whose whole lives are lived on the water.
If anyone has any other recommendations for stories set aboard barges, I’d love to hear them please. I keep thinking that Five Go off on a Canal Boat is a great, unwritten story, which I can vividly imagine elements of, in part drawn from my own trip in April: accidentally hitting another boat (perhaps this is Dick, getting distracted by lunch being prepared below deck), having a nasty encounter with some rude and angry men, suspicions being aroused as lights shine out from the boats at night – perhaps a midnight trip up and down the canal, picking up or dropping off some mysterious cargo… And of course this would all be fueled by plenty of ices and lemonade, boiled eggs for breakfast and burnt sausages for tea. This ice cream barge, currently moored near Victoria Park, would provide the perfect stopping off point for refreshments.
Tags: Bathampton, Caen Hill Locks, canal boat, Canal Museum, Canals and Rivers Trust, Chester Canal Trust, cygnets, Devizes, Kennet & Avon canal, Maiden's Trip., tinned milk
Hello there, and I hope you’re all enjoying the lovely May bank holiday weather. It was a little bit wetter last week when I and four chums (yes, there really were Five of us!) went on a canal boat holiday along the Kennet & Avon canal. Although the Famous Five never went on a boating holiday (they do use boats as frequent means of transport though, especially to get to Kirrin Island) it was a very FFS holiday. I suppose the closest point of comparison would be Five Go Off in a Caravan – living in a small and compact space and enjoying a VERY slow pace of travel.
We had three nights and four days on the boat, and I felt very much like Anne when we arrived at Bathampton (just outside of Bath) and were shown over the boat, the ‘Dorothy Beryl’, by Richard, her owner. In Five Go Off in Caravan, the Five are inspired by a passing traveling circus to hire two caravans to take them away for the summer holidays. When the little caravans arrive, one red, one green, Anne and the rest of the Kirrins sequel in delight as they explore their temporary homes:
‘”Bunks along one side – is that where we sleep? How gorgeous!”
“Look at this little sink – we can really wash up! And golly, water comes out of these taps!”
[…] “It’s like a proper house inside.Doesn’t it seem nice and big? […]
The children spent hours examining their caravans and finding out all the secrets. They certainly well-fitted, spotlessly clean, and very roomy.’
Our boat was full of secrets and extremely well equipped. The dining table and seats turned into a double bed, the sitting room area revealed another bed (all bedding stowed underneath) and there were all sorts of cupboards hidden everywhere containing everything we needed. There was even a shower, toilet and little fridge – and a wood burning stove which came in very handy for us to warm up and dry our wet clothes (there was plenty of rain).
Like the Five’s caravans, out boat was fairly modern rather than old-fashioned and traditional. Before the caravans arrive, Anne asks if they will be gypsy caravans, on high wheels, but Julian shakes his head “No, they’re modern, Mother says, streamlined and all that.” I’d been secretly hoping our boat would be old and traditionally painted in classic canal boat style, but she was instead a neat blue with her name painted in bright yellow on her side. We did have a small stool by the stove that was traditionally decorated though. Canal boat art is beautiful, with roses and castles the traditional means of decoration. This example is from the Chester Canal Boat Trust.
If you live in London (as I do), you can also visit the Canal Museum by King’s Cross to see examples of canal art, find out more about the history of London’s canals and even step on board a real boat (and also play inside a recreation of one). Excitingly, the Canal Museum also doubles up as a museum for the history of ice cream (I have previously blogged on this, I think).
When my boss found out I was going on a boating holiday, he recommended a book called Maiden’s Trip, by Emma Smith. It’s about women taking on boatmen’s work during the war and hauling cargoes along the Grand Union Canal. Unfortunately I couldn’t get hold of it before I went, but I was inspired by the blurb on the Bloomsbury website to cook kedgeree for dinner on the first night. We actually ate very well on board. Richard provided delicious breakfast food for us, all sourced locally – creamy milk (with actual lumps of cream floating in it), local bread, eggs, bacon and a pot of homemade marmalade. I brought some tinned evaporated milk for my breakfast coffee (Louis brought an aeropress – I don’t think the Five had one of those). This is our lunch on the first day – cheese and cucumber sandwiches. We were delayed in eating these due to an unfortunate bump we accidentally gave some resident boaters – slightly scary men with large dogs who were not best pleased and actually boarded our boat to give us a piece of their mind. Oops.
This incident did get me imagining a Famous Five-type adventure on a canal boat, with the mystery kickstarted by a similar sort of incident (the Five think the men nasty sorts, moor just around the corner for the night and then witness strange goings on, which could be smuggling by boat, or perhaps a kidnap victim being stashed on board). However, in actuality, the only other eventful thing that happened that day was getting grounded on an aquaduct with an extreme right angle and nearly leaving Louis behind on the bank.
We also had the pleasure of working locks and swing bridges. Because the pace of travel on a canal boat is very slow (you have to go slowly for various reasons, not least because you don’t want to violently disturb all of the moored boats), having locks and bridges adds a LOT of excitement to the journey. The captain/skipper has to steer the boat close enough to the bank for you to hop off and run ahead to open the bridge, or get the lock working (two people are best for the latter). As the boat barely travels at walking pace, if there are a couple of bridges or locks coming up it’s not worthwhile getting back on board so you get a good walk as well as a work out using the windlass (lock key) to work the winding mechanism that lets water in and out. This can actually be quite physically taxing.
We worked about 7 locks on the second day which took us almost up to the bottom of Caen (pronounced ‘Cane’) Hill lock flight. This is a group of 29 locks, with 16 of them being placed in very close succession to take your boat up, or down, Caen Hill near Devizes. The guides say to allow around 4 hours to work the flight, but as as we only had 4 days, we didn’t have the time or inclination to do this (we would have just had to come back down again right away, and it would have taken a whole day). Richard told us about a time he was travelling with a relative who was a marine – he got some of his colleagues to help and they managed the locks in a record time of 1 and a half hours.
We contented ourselves with taking a nice walk up the flight, watching people working its gates and wondering if any of them would get attacked by the nesting swans. You can see films of last year’s swans and cygnets here, on the Canal and Rivers Trust website (I think this year’s must be there too, but can’t find on the website). There were also plenty of ducks and ducklings on the canals at this time of year, and we saw a number of herons plus the usual coots and moorhens.
By the time we returned to Bathampton on Tuesday evening, we all felt like experienced boaters. I’m dying to go again. Because the boats travel slowly, it’s a great way to see the countryside and also relax (if there are a few of you, there’s plenty of opportunity to work (steer, handle ropes, do the locks etc) but you rarely need 5 people so lots of time to read, write, sleep on the roof of the boat and so on. As I live by the Regent’s Canal in London, and cycle the towpath every morning, it’s given me a different perspective of the boats I pass every day. I’m actually quite jealous. There’s something very satisfying about the rhythms of life on the water. And one other curious thing – it took me a day or two to stop having a sensation of gently rocking when I got back on land.