Messing about in boats, eh? Summer sunshine, a bottle of vintage Rothschilled ’53 from the sunny side of the vineyard and the damp side of the cellar, a gentle breeze and the distant growl of a Spitfire aeroplane patrolling the azure-blue sky. Well, yes indeed, sometimes – but rarely so from October to March! The pleasures of living on England’s canals in winter differ significantly from the pleasures of summer – and you won’t find many of them listed in the glossy brochures.
In summer I am generally to be found flaked out in the shade under a wet flannel with my feet cooling in a bucket of gin & tonic. I am not one of Mr Nature’s natural sun-bathers.
In winter any Police raid is more likely to catch me in front of the stove, swaddled in my faux-fur “Siberian Wolf” throw, sipping a litre-mug of hot cocoa and listening to the ice forming outside.
Ice does make quite a noise, by the way, as it forms. It’s an odd “twanging”, wire-snapping-taut jazz arrangement suggestive of science fiction film sound effects.
There is one constant throughout all of the seasons, and that is the Olde Englishe folk ritual known as “The Signal Dance”. Unless you live in a city you’ll all likely be familiar with this one, it’s where you hold your mobile telephone up to the gods and jeté and arabesque penché and generally pirouette up and down the towpath, waiting for earthly reward in the form of one, flickering bar of 4G. In extreme cases I have been known to climb trees and to balance on the top-most branch, flapping one arm for balance and texting the roving fuel boat with the other. Those television series you watch, the ones where everyone’s mobiles work everywhere – they’re fiction, pure, far-fetched, fanciful fiction.
Keeping the stove lit, fed and happy during winter is a routine that begins with lighting it sometime in September or October and ends with giving it a brush-down and a service sometime in March or more likely April. The next-warmest sight after the stove-glow itself is a well-deck full of stove munchables. I had a visit from the fuel boat yesterday afternoon, I gave them brief use of my bank debit card, they gave me a one-hundred kilo assortment of things to burn. In a thirty miles per hour cross-wind they hove up, slung a casual rope around the t-stud on my bow and passed me the sacks boat to boat. I had to move them all of about four feet to where the winter fat fuel is stored. A full bunker is five sacks under the steps inside the boat, five or six sacks outside on the well-deck. Last winter a sack lasted me four days (constant twenty-four hours of burning), this winter the manufacturers have changed the formulation of the “briquettes” to adjust the profit margin (more brick dust and nonsense I suppose, less actual coal), and a sack barely lasts three days. I’m sure that this has an impact on the fuel boat too, since they may have to carry more bulk around this year. Plus ca change, plus c’est le usual deal for the peasants.
Mud, of course, in England, is not confined solely to the winter seasons. It rains throughout the year, so wallows are almost as likely in July as in January. In winter though, the wallows all join up and this is something that “they” never tell you about boating – you’ll forget what colour your boots really are, and your jeans will only be clean for the time it takes to get from washing machine to stepping off the boat. It doesn’t matter how carefully you tip-toe, unless you live life in a marina you’ll be mud up to the knees and beyond after three sploshes (is “life” in a marina even possible, technically?). Anyway, I don’t care, I do my own washing so it only affects me and I don’t moan at myself. In the spirit of full and frank disclosure, at my time of life if I want to jump into puddles, I can, and I often do so. It’s fun! If I need to kneel down on a soggy towpath to secure a rope, I do so – it’s safer!
Can’t stay indoors from first autumn frost to the first butterfly-howl of spring. For one thing, the only place to dispose of rubbish hereabouts at these temporary moorings is a mile and a half walk up the towpath and, for reasons of physics, also a mile and a half back. With rubbish the trick is similar to the secret of carrying shopping. When shopping, buy enough to fill two balanced shopping bags, and that way you’ll creak and groan evenly. Same with rubbish, wait until there is enough to fill two bags, and then set off. A chap used to be able to take on water and empty the gazunder here too, but those services have been withdrawn, and all that remains is an industrial skip in a locked compound. It is a mild source of irony that the huge padlock on the compound opens to the twist of a “Water-mate key”… the same key that elsewhere unlocks the H2O taps. They (“they” know who they are) took the taps away a few years ago, but in summer some several desiccated boats a day oik up and spend half an hour or more searching for somewhere to plug their hosepipe into.
This folk-dancing and coal and rubbish and mud nonsense though is all work-a-day stuff, nothing that detracts from the pleasures of waking up amid nosey squirrels and uncharacteristically-quiet geese and belligerent sheep. These sheep were bruisers. Even when a couple walked back to their boat, Jack Russell Terrier in tow, the sheep gave not one single flying rodent’s rectum and merely offered trouble in plenty should the terrier – or the people – choose it. Come on then, dog and humans, if you think you’re hard enough. At one point I feared for some of the bigger windows on the Cardinal. I have fitted them with reflective blue one-way glass, and the sheep ring-leader, the one wearing knuckle-dusters and questionable tattoos, spent ten minutes trying to stare down and intimidate its own reflections. I was waiting for the headbutt attack…
As a child I spent a few years on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, and naturally the family had a couple of pet lambs, once of which survived to grow to “full Sunday lunch” size. I remember sheep then as being strong, certainly, determined, absolutely, but carrying an air of brooding violence? No. Their only interest in those “olden” times was grass and plenty of it. I do wonder if perhaps Messrs Monsanto & Corp have had some unintended side-effects with their “Sheepy-sheep Nosh Nodules” or whatever sheep get fed on these days (I doubt that it is just grass, someone will be meddling). When I am out walking, if I encounter a field of cows I turn back, I find another route. Seventy-four people were killed by cows in England between 2000 and 2015. Killed in the fields, I mean, I don’t think that the cows sneak into towns, break into houses and stab people. I am beginning to wonder whether I ought now to add sheep to my “No Go” list.
Today, slap bang in the middle of February, the sky is blue, the sun is shining, birds are twittering and – joy of joys – there’s only the lightest of breezes to compare to the constant gales of late. It is a perfect day for moving a narrowboat, and I must move soon or else the Canal Rozzers will be along to duff me up and do me over. However, perfect day though it is, it wasn’t advertised as such on the weather forecasts, and I have other plans (writing this, for one). I’ll take my chances moving tomorrow or the day after. I have food, I have fuel, I have water, I’m not up to my neck in household rubbish – life is good.
Even the sheep-bullies seem to be leaving me alone.
Ooh – one of those hawk things, the birds that hover high overhead and then swoop down to end the life of some poor field-dwelling rodent, is performing its impressive aerial trick alongside the boat. I shall have to get the binoculars and the bird-recognition tables out again. Perhaps I ought to get back into my dormouse onesie, scamper out into the field myself and give the bird a tale to dine out on for years to come?
Cyril, you won’t believe what I’ve just seen in the old field, it must have been two hundred pounds of prime, juicy, fresh mouse if it was an ounce… and it was wearing spectacles.
Hmm. The Mouse-Cruncher Hawk or whatever it was has gone now, and the cockerel in the nearby farm has started up.
I wonder where my friendly squirrel has gone. I hope that he hasn’t drowned in the mud or been eaten by the were-sheep.
Damn it, Hutson, settle down, concentrate and do some work!