The Cardinal, the Dragon, the Hailstorm, the Engineer and the Convent.
Stop me if you’ve already heard this one…
No, but seriously, at the moment the Cardinal and I are still on the Llangollen Canal, enjoying a slow mooch away from the World Heritage terrors of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct. It is August – high season and school holidays – and yet I find that I can get almost any mooring that I want simply by dancing up and down on the roof, shouting gibberish and brandishing Mother’s shrunken head on a stick.
I should perhaps clarify that I refer to it as “Mother’s” shrunken head because it is virtually all that I have to remember her by, bequeathed to me in a codicil (and in a particularly grubby jam-jar among many such) as she lay in her cot in the Special Air Service’s Regimental Rest Home in Belize, fighting malaria, an indifferent chef and the apparent inability of the bar to serve a cold gin. “Son,” she said, “son, I want you to have my shrunken head collection”. “Because you love me, Mummy?” replied I “Hardly, son, I can’t stand the sight of you, as you know, but I do think that you ought to have a little something to remind you of your Father. I’m fairly certain that I got all of the possibilities, he’s bound to be in there somewhere.”
[Should any of my readers cry “favouritism” at hearing of this generous bequest, you should know that my sister inherited dear Mother’s throwing-knife, knuckle-duster and garrotting wire collection, while my brother benefitted from Letters of Personal Introduction to Mr Castro, items that have allowed both siblings to build up significant specialist professional business interests in one way or another. Mother was nothing if not fair.]
Anyway, back to me. So useful is this aforementioned mooring technique that when I approached Ellesmere in the county of Shropshire, (website HERE), cautiously, as advised in the Guide Books, I was able to secure prime moorings thusly slap bang in Ellesmere Junction Basin itself. Two brandishes of the shrunken-head, one short gibber, half a caper and the spot I desired immediately became rather conveniently vacant. But I get ahead of myself…
Before settling into these fresh moorings we (the Cardinal and I) perforce called at the official “services” area, and a splendid services provision it is too. The Cardinal’s five-hundred litre water tank was refilled, the gazunders (Thunderbirds I to IV) were emptied and household rubbish and recycling distributed about the various wheelie-bins and lorry-containers. That was the work, then came the fun. My mooring of first-choice lay some fifty yards back from the service area, in the direction that I’d come, and on the opposite side of the canal. Boats move in reverse about as well as cats march en masse in step to a drum-beat. For this manoeuvre I would also have a critical audience, because the Canal & River Trust’s local marshalling yard was by then open for business, with brutish workmen gathering to be about their brutish boating tasks.
The manoeuvre, purely incidentally it must be said, went like a dream. As I slipped the Cardinal into “astern; dead slow” someone in the marshalling yard out of sight began to reverse a lorry, so much to the amusement of civilian folk on the towpath the Cardinal appeared to have a reversing beeper fitted. Backwards we went for about seventy-five yards and all in an orderly straight line with no drama in spite of the usual crosswinds; a feat almost unheard of. Then forwards and into the “mooring of choice” for a couple of nights. I even remembered to look utterly casual, as though I always somehow manoeuvred with such perfection! It was, again, Nanny who taught me to “take credit first, and wonder how the heck it happened later”.
Ellesmere’s stretch of canal is mostly function and junction, with a marina, a narrow bridge, a tight turn, the Canal & River Trust’s dry-dock, offices and marshalling yard, the services area, a meeting of three branches that also serves as a winding (turning) hole and with one of the branches leading right into the centre of town and the shops. Quite the most respectable aspect of the ensemble is the pied-a-Shropshire of Thomas Telford, the remarkable chap who designed and oversaw, among many, many other civil engineering works, the construction of what was then known as the Ellesmere Canal – including the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and the tunnels. [Website info on Mr Telford HERE] Beech House sits right on the corner of the canal junction, the better not to waste time getting to and fro work…
Little did Mr Telford think what fun he would be laying on for a chap living in his far-flung future. The Ellesmere Basin is, as I had hoped it would be, a veritable circus of human activity. From my position safe behind the Cardinal’s one-way glass portholes and windows (and with a thick row of fenders deployed) I was treated to the sight of every manoeuvring technique known to man, and to some that have yet to be defined and documented. Hire-boats came and went, sometimes intentionally, sometimes it seemed just because the throttles had jammed wide open and the horizon beckoned.
As Confucius used to remark; the family that screams in terror on holiday together, stays together. I heard families screaming in English, Australian, German, Dutch, Hindi and something that I think was “Evangelical Tongues” from the deep south of the North American ex-colony. The edges of the basin are ringed with concrete, and they are splendidly unforgiving. Messrs Crash, Bang and Apocalyptic-Wallop were much in evidence.
One wholly unexpected treat was the sight of a real Welsh Dragon being constructed and then obedience-trained in the CaRT marshalling yard – a genuine, smoke-snorting beastie of proportions to make even St George take a deep breath and consider a change of vocation. Apparently, this following weekend, there is to be a festival of something here in Ellesmere, with music, processions, a classic car show and a melee of floating traders (floating on boats that is; they rarely float independently, being too weighed down with tat to trade).
This being England though, and moreover, England quite close to the Welsh border, the clemency of the weather cannot be guaranteed, dragon breath or no dragon breath. The one consistency in English meteorology is inconsistency, and here we do not refer to annual seasons, but to from hour to hour. To wit, at one point during my August stay it was warm, dry and sunny enough for me to wander into town in shirtsleeves, to purchase fresh comestibles. Within no more than two minutes of my regaining the shelter of the Cardinal we were treated to thunder, lightning and monsoon-style rain combined with ruddy-great hailstones being flung left, right and centre. A close call indeed. Others were not so lucky, and I swear that I saw the ghost of Gene Kelly folding his umbrella away and breaking his cobbler’s heart in the puddles.
But enough of this voyeuristic enjoyment of schadenfreude, exothermic animals and festivals. The time eventually came, as time always does, to leave those 72-hour maximum moorings and find somewhere else to lurk. The Cardinal and I mooched on, all of another half a mile, to the other side of town. Confusion, I say, confusion to both Robespierre and to the Canal & River Trust’s [Boat Movement] Enforcement Officers, or Huggy-Wuggy Park Ranger Experience-Facilitators, or whatever it is that they’re called this year.
We are currently (re)moored on free-for-all towpath moorings with open country on one side and the walled back garden of the Poor Clares Convent on the other, just beyond the hedgerow.
From the open country comes the distant call of the Hoodwink’s Web-Footed Peribungle, or some such bird, calling phee! phee! phee! and accompanied at all times of day and night by pair-bonding Sodbucket’s Mouse-Eviscerators calling scawk! scawk! scawk! – while from the convent side of the mooring comes a multitude of noises mellifluous, noises amusing and noises nun.
The convent of the Poor Clares Colettines is both a delight and a disappointment. [Website HERE] The nuns are quite authentic and sport the full habit. There is occasionally music, of sorts. Well, musical instrument practice, and I could not on oath swear for or against this being “a large nun with oversized lungs learning the nose-flute” or else “a small nun with terrible cough doing something to the business end of a trombone”. The only thing that I could say under oath is that the sound is… surprising. Whatever it is, nuns do occasionally have fun, apparently, although I have yet to overhear the sisters playing the didgeridoo, the drums or the electric guitar. I’m here for a few days yet though, and I have high hopes (even without an ant or a rubber-tree plant).
It must be said that even for a serious non-theist such as myself, it is quite pleasant hearing the mellifluous ting-ting-ting of the convent bell calling the nuns to the events of the convent day: Midnight Matins (midnight, ish); rising (05:30hrs); Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament (05:50); Angelus Lauds (06:20); Breakfast (07:15) &etc on throughout the day with barely a moment free in the horarium to scratch an itch, cuss a cuss or utter a purple blasphemy.
One convent sound that I have, safely on my side of the hedgerow, allowed myself a belly-laugh at, has been the two-stroke symphony of a ride-on lawnmower buzzing around the convent grounds. I can’t help but wonder whether the nuns, in full habit, draw lots to drive the lawnmower, take it in turns on a rota or if the Abbess, Mother Superior or equivalent reserves motor-sports to herself. Doubtless the task gets the wind blowing nicely through the vestments, especially if they, as I hope that they do, pepper the lawn with wheelies, “doughnuts” and J-turns. It is not possible to photograph inside a convent, for one thing I don’t have the necessary telephoto lens and I already have far too many Peeping Tom convictions to risk adding another. A photograph of the statuary in the front approach is all that I can offer.
The disappointment of Poor Clares comes in the form of the convent building itself. It has all of the charm and grace of a nineteen-seventies estate, brick-built bungalow with PVC double-glazing. Not for the Poor Clares Colettines the delights of anything ancient, stone-built or even very impressive in any way. Still, as Nanny always used to remind me whenever the kitchen sent up that day’s menu for the nursery inmates to choose from (usually a decision between larks’ tongues, roast suckling elephant or monkey brains, to be followed by marchpanes, piddled figs and a half-bottle of something from the lesser-vintage end of the wine cellar) – you can’t have everything. Not even if you’re a nun.
The Cardinal and I shall reste ici for a few days on these new moorings, tormented by the calls of the winged wild and the various sounds of the convent. I may even wander back with one of my best walking sticks to prod and poke at people and things in the Ellesmere festival, should the desire seize me with sufficient force to loosen the grip of my favourite chair. Then I feel we ought to mooch on again, perhaps through the short Ellesmere canal tunnel and mayhap another half-mile, to these moorings overlooking one of the local meres, where it’s even more rural and a chap’s only worry is that he can, occasionally, hear banjos playing in the woods… and I don’t think it’s the nuns at practice.