Nostalgia about England’s canals isn’t what it’s going to be – Guest Post by Ian Hutson…

There’s probably a few years in the old horse yet, but…

Living full-time on a boat on England’s canals will, sometime relatively soon, go the way of policemen who would tell you the time, the way of doorstep milk deliveries, of corner-shop grocers, of politicians with spine, integrity or statesmanship, of coal mines of our own, a car industry, the NHS, schools that produced young people who can perform basic arithmetic and correctly spell medium-length words, and even of popular music with lyrics and a tune. We have no idea why we got rid of all of those things, we loved them dearly, but they’re gone now forever. My option to live as I have just begun to do is being steadily eroded and a gentle, ever so politically-correct, £££-based, well-regulated, legal but morally questionable disappearance is being arranged and even advertised as being for my own benefit. The nation-wide use of metaphorical sledgehammers is being “justified” by the behaviour of a few, predictably metropolitan, metaphorical nuts.

Reviews of the boat licensing system are under way, and label me “cynic” if you will, but all of us who weren’t born yesterday know what that means.

Something that neither uses the canals nor loves them has been put in charge, making the big policy divisions and yes, you guessed it, that thing is, ultimately, disinterested money. Moolah. Lucre. A blind force acting blindly to further the interests of chalk dealing with cheese.

Canal River Trust (PDF)

The “charitable“ “trust” wrapped around a limited company that was handed dominion over the canal system in 2012 obtains its funding from sources that, mostly, have nothing to do with boating, let alone with folk living on boats. There’s a substantial licence fee, of course, but most of the money labours in under umbrellas emblazoned “cycling” and “rambling” and “property development” and “commercial for-profit marinas”. Were this “charitable trust wrapped around a limited company” to direct any of its efforts positively towards live-aboard boating then the bulk of its funding would dry up faster than you could say dehydrated water in a packet.

The pressure is on for the canals to cease their real-world, adult-based, serious existence and to Become One With The Bor… to become one with the sanitised, plastic, child-friendly, tourist-pleasing, one-size-fits-all “service industry” society that we have allowed six hundred and fifty dismal, dreary souls in Westminster to force us to become* (*this is just my opinion, and if you don’t like it, well, I have others… cr. Marx, Groucho, not Karl).

There is every chance that in ten years’ time the canals will have been sub-let to a wholly private company to run as a theme park complete with numbered pedalo swans, and it will happen so gradually that hardly anyone (except boaters, and in esp. live-aboard boaters) will notice the change or even be able to tell you how things were before, in the “olden” days.

The canals will remain, of course, as will the boats, acting as mobile scenery, but lots of priceless intangible things will be lost, valued at precisely nought by the system. The quality of my home, for one, doubtless restricted and pressured into the sardines-in-a-tin delights of Mammon Marinas Incorporated. It’ll be living on a boat, Jim, but not as we (as I) currently know it.

The human and the humane cadence of living on a boat will be squeezed until it looks like an empty toothpaste tube. I’ve only been doing this for a few months, but already I’ll miss that. For a chap on “constant holiday at home afloat” life stumbles along at quite a different pace to the majority. There are rhythms and sub-rhythms to (rural, perhaps not metropolitan!) traffic and life on the water.

There’s a daily beat, beginning with the dawn-raiders, the ones who move their boats before others have even thought about letting their pillows cool down. Following swiftly on their heels come the more mainstream early-risers, the insomniac elderly, the ex-military types and those with energetic, lively dogs. The sort of dogs that wake in the darkest hour just before dawn and can brew strong coffee all by themselves. There’s a pause then for two or three hours before the late-breakfast types vacuum up the last of their eggs & bacon, pull up their pins and head out to create the first serious wave of boat traffic of the day.

This being England of course, everyone moors up for lunch, even the still-stuffed late-breakfasters do that, and the canals go quiet until about two or three o’clock in the post meridian. On boat after boat the galley-gibbon serves up a nineteen-seventies style salad – per plate: one tomato (whole); two lettuce leaves (washed, still wet, whole); a spring onion (whole); a blob of Heinz Salad Cream and a solid slab of Cheddar cheese. The lucky boaters with generous pensions then finish their meal with a tin of Del Monte Fruit Cocktail and lashings of Carnation evaporated milk. I’m willing to bet that as a child you were especially fond of the little half glace cherries in the Fruit Cocktail. There used to be about one per tin, didn’t there?

There’s another little mini-rush at about tea-time, but ending before the civilised timbre of the dinner-gong peels out across the land. These are the folk who were too hung-over to move earlier, or those who still equate the whole of the working day with rush, crush, commute and panic. These are the boaters who need two glasses of Sanatogen wine and a cider-vinegar enema to get them fizzing sufficiently to face the world. They are the slow-burners of the boating world, the sunset movers and (involuntary) shakers.

When I first ventured out onto the canals I had thought that there would be a different routine within weekend days, but that seems to not be the case. We are all creatures of habit, and only National Bank Holidays blur the routines.

As live-aboard day stacks upon boat-without-but-not-lacking-a-home-mooring day it often seems that folk whose boats are their hobby and not their home move in a quite unseemly frenzy. It’s understandable of course, with only a brief break from work or a weekend to enjoy. Live-aboards hum up and down the canals taking long pauses at their moorings, like bees taking their own sweet time with each flower. The others, those “with a home mooring”, buzz up and down the canals like over-warm bluebottle flies, mooring for lunch and then off again, or mooring just overnight to sleep, and seeming, to me at least, to never have the time to look around, to make each view familiar and to say hello to each and every tree en route.

If anyone is of an age to remember an American television series The Rockford Files each episode began with a series of photographs of James Garner, motionless while a crowd blurred around him. That is what it can feel like being on a “continuous holiday” cruise. On, for example, a fourteen-day towpath mooring I can see anything up to fourteen “generations” of visitors come and go around me, or with me. No wonder that I might look to them like a fixture and fitting.

I am still too wet behind the tiller-arm to really know what the rhythm is over the course of a whole year. I would venture though that a vast majority of the bluebottle boaters will enter long-term hibernation in marinas and the emphasis will shift from boating tortoises among boating hares to just tortoises disturbed by the occasional rogue hare venturing out in a spell of unexpectedly good weather.

My boat and I have hardly been anywhere yet, comparatively. I’m still learning to check on bleary-eyed mornings that the towpath is actually on the side of the boat that I am about to step off (stepping mistakenly onto the canal water itself offers manifold inconveniences for the average atheist non-messianic non-swimmer vegetarian hippie). Each move of the boat is a discovery, a pleasant but worried-about and planned event as I learn how to schedule visits to services for water and wotnots in conjunction with finding new bits of the countryside to stretch into and sniff at and be out of the way in.

All that I can do is to sketch out a hopeful future that involves cruising around all of the rural canals while scooting at top speed through any canal urban or canal industrial. If I have time before “we” pave over paradise and put up a “parking lot” or, more seriously, legislate the canals into mere linear boating lakes, cycle paths, rambling routes, kayaking centres and barbecue leisure areas, complete with curfew, PAYG tariff and every boat a photo-opportunity of Brasso and bees-waxed castles & roses, then I’ll do a complete tour of the system and then turn around and tour it all again the other way.

My immediate future, should the planet keep spinning, the solar system remain in balance and the universe not suddenly enter a disastrous stage of heat entropy for a week or three, includes a trip out and back again along the Llangollen canal and into welsh Wales. This is the canal with the slightly terrifying Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, a one hundred and twenty-six foot high aqueduct with no guardrail and masquerading as a cuddly-wuddly Word Heritage site. I reserve the right on that particular move to throw dignity to the winds and to scream like a big girl’s blouse the whole way across – including on the return trip too, after I’ve caught my breath.

Pontcysllte Aqueduct

My recent past, the only element of our lives that any of us can see clearly and with any certainty, already includes some rather nice little hide-away spots. Moorings alongside meadows with geese and cows and trees worthy of Capability Brown. Misty moisty moorings between ancient bridges, far from any roadway. Busy canal junction moorings where the sodium street-lighting was bright enough to tickle my solar panels into a minor giggle each night. Places where the sunrises and sunsets, when viewed through the ice-cubes in a tumbler of good-quality gin, rivalled anything that the Commonwealth has to offer.

As I type this though England is rather bleak, even for June. There’s a forty mile-an-hour wind blowing, the sky is leaden and grey and each raindrop is on a mission to find an ear or an eye to fling itself into. The Cardinal and I are not moving, not in this wind. We have one member of crew (me), one rudder and one propeller, while Maria has fifty-seven feet by six-feet-six of each side of the boat to play with. The boat is rocking gently with each gust, and that means that I am rocking gently with each gust. Every few seconds Mrs Nature lobs a bucketful of rain at each of the windows and portholes. The rubber fenders, being wet, are either creaking Hammer House of Horror style, or are singing whale-song to each other, to me and to anyone listening. It’s great fun, even today.

Such birdlife as there is has largely suspended flying for the day. A moment ago a sparrow tried to fly into the wind just outside my study window. It conceded a draw, changed direction and was suddenly whipped away back from whence it came. It departed with wings akimbo and at a very un-airworthy angle, but hopefully it will manage an emergency landing in a dry nest somewhere, maybe even its own. There are no bees visiting the buttercups and clover of the towpath, not a one. A collective hive decision has obviously been taken to stay at home and watch daytime Bee-TV. Pollination Street, Ready Steady Buzz, Hives Under The Hammer, Come Fly With Me…

This torrential downpour reminds me, peculiarly unbalanced by dull weather as I am, of the death-scene monologue delivered by the replicant Roy Batty (actor: Rutger Hauer) in the Ridley Scott sci-fi classic, Blade Runner. It’s a monologue that is quite pertinent to the canals in their current state of review flux.

I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain. …

Well, I haven’t (yet) seen C-Beams glitter in the dark, but I have seen one or two deliciously eccentric things. A paddle-boarder lost in time, in tears for all I know, in the rain… Surely no gentleman ever paddleboards in England in June without either umbrella or pith-helmet?

The canals, for the moment, this series of wonderful, fleeting, current moments, are a most splendid place indeed to consider such matters as the rhythm of life and whether I am too set in my ways to master a paddle-board. I shall miss these moments when they’re gone. Perhaps the future will prove me wrong? I do hope so, although I doubt it. I doubt many, many things. Doubting things has got me where I am today.

I was about to ask if anyone knew where I am today, but one of the charitable trust’s spotters has just been past, noting my boat’s position on his rinky-dinky wifi-linked iPad. That’s me logged and pinned on the enforcement maps then.

Ian Hutson

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41 thoughts on “Nostalgia about England’s canals isn’t what it’s going to be – Guest Post by Ian Hutson…

  1. My sister and brother-in-law encountered similar unease during their time of living on a canal boat a couple of years ago… they since moved into a house temporarily and are about to embark on life in a camper van to see how that compares to boat life. By the way, we still have doorstep milk delivery!

    Liked by 2 people

    • How do, Missus! What worries me is that feeling of being pursued by the black shadow of the Establishment and its quasi-religious fanaticism about everything being in private hands (i.e., – their hands!) rather than common ownership and care. The “they” of the “it” seem to want everything to be run by bankers, lawyers and dodgy accountants. Tis sad. ;-(

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I love your optimism that the canals will continue to exist. Surely even those will become threatened by bumbling birdbrained bureaucrats in due course.
    I have only spent one week on a narrowboat, but that was enough to fall in love completely.

    Liked by 2 people

    • i heard an expression a couple of days ago that made me chuckle, and it was in reference to bureaucrats – ‘Most of them couldn’t even run a bath…’ Sadly, it seems to be too true! It’s the whole ethos that worries me, that everything must be privatised and commercial, sub-contracted and preferably foreign-owned. The entire infrastructure has been sold from under our feet, and only those with big (big big big – corporation-sized) chunks of money can play the game now. ;-(

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating, Chris. I an intrigued with canals. We have the Erie Canal and all the folklore attached to it here. Thanks for sharing this. I’ve learned something I didn’t know.

    Liked by 1 person


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