Thus far in my cruises on England’s waterways I have spoilt us (my narrowboat Cardinal Wolsey and me, myself and I) summat rotten – by sticking to the generally rural. I am not fond of the urban, and I go so far as to say that I dislike the metropolitan intensely. Give me wild and remote, give me windswept coastlines, give me woodlands – at the very least give me England’s gentle countryside.
England’s canals, however, were built for industry, built to service mills and ports and to make profit for entrepreneurial chaps who whipped their horses and their workers equally, two eighteen-hour shifts a day, eight days a week. It was inevitable, thus, that the Cardinal and I should at some stage be forced to venture away from the nicely bucolic and into areas with a different kind of beauty, the variety of beauty that could surely only be described as such by academics who haven’t set foot in the real world since Plato was knee-high to a penguin. Urban beauty eh? I don’t quite see it myself.
Bricks and concrete and roads and traffic and grubby, grimy people walking grubby, grimy dogs that make do with peeing up lamp-posts and car wheels instead of watering wild trees. Cables and wires everywhere, and such vegetation as there is hacked back so that the human rats in the human maze may rush back and forth unhindered by Nature. Joggers wearing headphones, stopping only to cough up exhaust-fume soot or to scrape doggy-do from their trainers, parents wheeling their pale broods to nurseries and schools, hoping that their children will live a healthier, cleaner life but in fact simply reinforcing the urban pattern with their every urban action. Every concrete edifice blighted by clumsy, ugly, vaguely threatening graffiti, all in the same paints, in the same style, all uniquely extolling the virtues of social revolution and of thinking outside of the established Establishment box.
The canal that the Cardinal and I are mooching slowly along dives into a very modest town in Cheshire and, at a canal “t-junction” in the centre of town, becomes a different canal altogether – the Trent & Mersey. Unlike roads, on any given canal there is no bypass, no alternative route available. We – the Cardinal and I – are exploring it because, like Everest, K2 and Biggin Hill, it is there. It is rewarding our explorations by leading to a stretch of canal that is even more blasted and ruined, this time by heavy, heavy industry (and upon that I will report, lovingly, at a later date). I calculate that this expedition will make me want to kiss every muddy inch of the more familiar, rural canals when we retrace our steps! I have yet to step, and I am already looking forward to retracing my steps!
It was perhaps unwise of me to schedule this venture for the depths of January, when my discomfort at being elbow to elbow with my fellow human creature is also coloured from horizon to horizon in shades of cold, battleship grey. Seasonal Affective Disorder in combination with Sloppy Architectural Disarray and Social Alternative Disaffection do not happy bedfellows make. Perhaps in summer these minor urban waterways are transformed into vibrant venues of veritably Venice-like vivaciousness, but I doubt it. For one thing, that’s only five vees and everyone knows that V8s make the best engines for social progress.
There are advantages to be found in this sudden foray into the urban. This town has a supermarket, so the Cardinal’s stocks of comestibles are awash with tins, cartons, jars and packets set against the remainder of winter to come. My pantry looks rather as though it has been stocked by some curry-munching vegan survivalist with a side-passion for Marmite on home-baked toast. As a curry-munching vegan survivalist with a passion for Marmite on home-baked toast, I rarely if ever remove my winter vests and crocheted nose-cosy until May or June…
One of the chief disadvantages is that of the six locks required to get through this town, five of them are surrounded by roads and pathways, overlooked by houses, offices and workshops, and they all come in quick succession, there’s no stopping for a cup of Darjeeling or Kopi Luwak in-between.
Still, mustn’t grumble, otherwise you’ll pin me down as a grumpy old misanthropic Hector, and that would never do at all, that cat must remain securely in the bag. I can’t help but wonder though, that if this one small, really quite inoffensive town is enough to fill me with all of the joys of plague, trench-foot and Bedlam, what on earth will I be like when I have to tackle a real city, such as Manchester or Birmingham, or – should I ever join the ranks of the truly, eagerly insane – …London? Cities such as those must be traversed somehow if I want to enjoy the rural also-rans of the rest of the canal system. England’s latticework of canals joins up cities and ports, these are where the industry used to be (when we had any kind of industry in this now utterly benighted “service” “industry” land). It doesn’t bear thinking about, really it doesn’t.
I am a country mouse, not a town rat. The patterns of my life are founded in the days when a motorist, faced with crossing London (long before the M25 was sketched on a map), could arrange to meet a gentleman of either the Automobile Association or the Royal Automobile Club who would drive their car safely through London on their behalf. Would that there were a similar ten-bob service for narrowboats. Here my man, here are the keys to Cardinal Wolsey. Please take care and be sure to wake me once we’re moored on the far side of Middlewich Big Lock and the kettle is whistling. If only. What a ten-bob’s worth that would be.
I have performed my customary routine reconnaissance by walking ahead to see what I must tackle in the coming days. Surely a day will dawn soon when I actually feel bold, brash, bright and even brave enough to steer us through this anti-jungle, this other-landscape, this …nest of my fellow creature. Perhaps one early morning, when as few of my species as possible are out and about. Perhaps after porridge, reinforced with a tot or two of whisky. Other folk manage it, I shall manage it – even if it is so very much “not me”.
Perhaps I shall leave my own “graffiti tag” under one of the bridges.
Perhaps “Veni, vidi …” what is the Latin for “I came, I saw, I scarpered as swiftly as was possible”?