There are no photographs to accompany this account, as you will understand from reading it. I have instead provided some images of the peaceful locations that my narrowboat Cardinal Wolsey and I generally moor up in. I am not fond of towns, and towns are not fond of me, so we generally gravitate to the countryside, the farther and deeper into it the better. This policy though is not without its problems.
Winter here in England this year has been likened to someone in an argument who keeps storming back into the room, waggling a finger and saying ‘…and another thing!’ It is the season that just won’t go away. We’ve had patches of spring, patches sufficiently convincing (i.e., lasting thirty minutes or longer) for me to allow Mr Stove, the phlogiston reactor (coal burner), to go out. Thermal regret soon sets in after decisions such as that in this country. At the time of writing, the ides of April, it is raining, grey, dull in extremis and blowing a 40mph gale. It’s not really cold, it’s just …bleak.
I have put out extra bungees on my canvas covers and slung out not two but four mooring lines, just in case the wind changes direction (as it often does on this small island in the North Atlantic ocean). The boat is bouncing up and down, working the fenders hard against the towpath and each and every cunning facility for unplanned ventilation is imitating a banshee singing arias from a Klingon opera. It’s actually quite lovely, once inside, with a good book and a half-gallon mug of rum-fortified cocoa.
Yesterday evening I went early to bed, my liver thoroughly soaked in …cocoa …and I dreamt dreams of being Captain Jack Aubrey, braced upon the bowsprit and chasing the French vessel Acheron across the globe.
At 03:30hrs my attempts to prevent Napoleon from conquering England and the world were rudely interrupted and I was awoken by a most impressive set of noises. Something was attacking the boat!
Nope. We are moored altogether too far from Calais. The French fleet is highly unlikely to have made it up the Shropshire Union canal.
The wind was howling more violently than ever, and the Cardinal was rocking and rolling, such as canal boats do when Her Majesty’s forces of nature are at play.
Banging, clattering, thumping, scraping noises continued unabated. It might have been anything from ne’er-do-wells or marine footpads trying to force the locks to siphon diesel from the boat’s (somewhat large) fuel tank, it might have been another boat broken loose in the wind and doing unspeakable things to the Cardinals stern. It might have been aliens trying to get in.
Now, I am a brave soul, but I wasn’t born yesterday and I am not a complete idiot (there are parts missing). I have a system in place for just such eventualities. The basic precept is “don’t get your head kicked in (or be probed by aliens) over a property dispute”. During the refit undertaken by the Bro and I a couple of years ago the Cardinal was fitted with “panic” buttons inside, and these allow me to turn on exterior floodlights and to blast the (120db) horn at the simple swick of a flitch – without even getting out of bed. Snuggled under the covers I have merely to reach out a languid arm and I can convert night to day and peace to aural hell. This is Stage One of the Plan.
The lights and the horn had no effect, the clattering, banging, thumping and scraping continued. This didn’t surprise me, since neither aliens bearing probes nor ne’er-do-wells with crowbars and siphon tubing are renowned for being the brightest little defendants in the dock.
Stage Two of the universal “Disturbance in the Middle of the Night” Plan calls for more light, more noise and for me to do my very convincing Rottweiler impression. I flung back the duvet, straightened my jim-jams, knelt on all fours on the mattress and barked, I barked fit to scare the Baskervilles.
The noises continued.
I tried my “Bloodhound” howl. My bloodhound howl has been known to set up resonant responses from hunting packs in three counties simultaneously. My bloodhound howl has been prevailed upon by surgeons the world over to make a patient’s blood run cold and thin.
The noises continued. Damn it.
Stage Three of the U-DitMotN Plan is, subject to Health & Safety assessment, to get dressed, go outside and make use of my Black Belt qualification in the noble English martial art of “Berserk”.
I switched on all of the interior lights, leaving the exterior floodlights still blazing, and – slowly, carefully, with consideration for fashion and what I might look like in Police photographs of a crime scene – I got dressed. For the fashion-conscious among you I chose casual dark jeans, a collarless “granddad style” hemp shirt in midnight blue and black trainers by Vegetarian Shoes Ltd of Brighton, but there was no time to select properly co-ordinated socks, or to do my hair.
I have a small but perfectly formed and useful torch, the largest Maglite made on the planet, taking six “D Cell” batteries, being half a metre in length and weighing in on the heavy side of “hah! – take this, you ruffian”. You won’t be surprised to learn that I have removed the original halogen bulb and converted it to take three high-power, super-efficient LEDs. It has a blinding range of about half a mile.
Together, torch and I stepped onto the towpath at the bow – the opposite end to where all of the noise was coming from, fifty-seven feet away from the noise to be precise. I did mention earlier that I wasn’t born yesterday.
We stepped onto the towpath only to be almost immediately bowled over by a rampaging badger.
In the glare of Mr Torch Mr Badger’s bouncing, rounded backside made very respectable progress for some several hundred yards away into the night.
The noises had stopped.
I did my rounds. There was no-one on the rear deck, everything was intact, the mooring ropes and chains had not been abused, there was no alien flying saucer parked in the field next to us and not a little green man grasping a rectal-probe anywhere in sight. Phew!
Feeling perhaps just the tiniest smidgen cheated (we come in peace, take us to your leader…) and yet simultaneously quite relieved (Crusher McNorris, put the diesel-theft can down and back away…) I did what all Englishmen do under these circumstances. I went back to bed and slept the sleep of the righteous until far past my usual waking hour.
To say that I need my beauty-sleep is an understatement. I’ve had the best part of some six decades of sleep to date and it hasn’t made one iota of difference yet. I am still asked to understudy for the baboons’ rear ends whenever Attenborough films yet another wildlife documentary. Apparently I add more realism than the real thing, especially so when I smile or try to look intelligent. Anyway, I digress.
Inspection in daylight revealed a very, very, very ripe drowned hare carcass wedged between the Cardinal’s hull and the towpath. The wind had wedged it in there and I suspect that it was this that Mr Badger was attempting to reach. Food, glorious badger food, pease pudding and custard. Since the water level here is lower, much lower, than a badger’s best stoop I suspect – from the pattern of weed splattered freshly upon the hull – that he fell in. My best theory is that it was his claws on the steel of the hull and on the steel of the towpath Armco that were making most of the noise in the night, and the heavy thumping and banging was him heaving his not inconsiderable body back and forth in his attempts to rescue himself. His predicament may also account for the snippets of Anglo-Saxon that I am quite sure that I heard too.
The Cardinal has many boathooks. I’ve used the longest one twice, each time to pole us off when grounded due to there being an over-sufficiency of boat draught combined with an insufficiency of canal depth. The smaller boathook I generally use while wearing the expression of a bulldog chewing a lemon, to drag out and push away the remains of deceased but still-floating unfortunate animals. So it was this morning.
‘Eek!’ and ‘Ugh!’
I did lots and lots of research before I moved onto my boat to live, but not once, not anywhere in the vast repository that is the sum of human knowledge, did I trip across mention of badgers attacking boats in the wee small hours.
Some knowledge only comes with experience.
My second winter afloat is drawing to a close, and I am beginning to accumulate the beginnings of “experience”.