I have found it difficult to write about my recent canal trip on the Oxford and Grand Union Canals in England. There are a few reasons (besides general laziness and procrastination). First, the minute we got home to Lummi Island (and a mountain of collected mail) we were plunged into the morass of legal difficulties in our ongoing will dispute. We had two days at home, then we were off to San Juan Island for two tense days in court. The result of that was another postponement until March of next year.
The trip itself was a peaceful interlude, filled with beauty and interest, but without much in the way of big events or great excitement. My daughter and Jerry and I coexisted for 3 weeks in the close quarters of her narrow boat with uninterrupted good humor. And I got to see 3 beloved grandchildren that I have not seen for 3 years.
The other significant event of the trip happened at the point in the cruise when we turned around to go back to Oxford; I met for the first time a blog friend whose writing I admire, Dick Jones of Patteran Pages. He drove to the Canal to meet us and we had a pleasant lunch in a country pub.
He turned out to be more jolly that I had imagined from reading his often serious poetry. But in many ways I felt I already knew him well.
As I look back on the canal adventure my thoughts are mostly about my daughter, who lives on the narrow boat, Pangolin, and who captained our 3 week cruise. Of course I have always known that she was super intelligent and capable. She is a literary sort of person (and lovely to look at) who has degrees in English (creative writing, old and middle English, etc.) from Harvard and Oxford, but after 3 weeks on the boat I have a new admiration for her resourcefulness, self reliance and versatility.
The boat itself, 7 feet wide and about 65 feet long, is comfortable, well equipped, and attractive.
It has a fully functional kitchen, a bathroom with tub and shower, a bedroom, a sitting area and dining alcove (which converts into a second bed). There is a TV and wireless internet is based on cell phone reception. Electricity is from batteries that are charged by the engines. Bathroom waste is collected in a sort of plastic suitcase and is carried to and emptied at stations provided by British Waterways, a private non-profit that now owns and maintains the canals
. There is a big water holding area in the hull that is filled periodically by connecting a hose to a water supply near Pangolin’s permanent mooring, or while cruising at water supply stations along the canals. The boat is heated by a tiny coal and wood burning stove in the sitting area.
My daughter manages and maintains all this, and in addition she understands how to navigate this craft, which is driven from the stern. She knows about engines. She cleans debris tangled on the propeller.
She has mastered the rules and regulations of the canal system, the lift bridges, the locks. And she lives this life enthusiastically year round. Mostly she walks to the shops she needs, though she has an aging auto which she parks about a quarter of a mile from her mooring.
The canals are full of boats.
Many people live on them, either full or part time, and like my daughter have permanent moorings where they prettify the area around the towpath. My daughter has potted plants and bird feeders at her mooring in an Oxford suburb. Other boats on the canals are privately owned but used only occasionally for recreation. Moorings are regulated. Some are 24 or 48 hour, others 14 days. There are businesses that rent out boats for short periods. You can tell those because they don’t have the variety of roof ornamentation and utilities that residential boats have.
Sometimes these are “party boats” with a lot of drinking. They tend to drive fast (more than 4 miles per hour) and they often ignore canal etiquette like slowing down when passing moored boats .Stag or hen parties are popular.
Our original plan was to cruise the Thames to London, but we were thwarted in that by the weather. While we were in England the weather was not bad, but it had rained heavily just before we got there and the Thames was so swollen that it was not safe to take the narrow boat on it. The locks were “red boarded” — dangerous to navigate and “at your own risk.” Thus boats were uninsured using them.
So we decided to cruise up the Oxford Canal to the Grand Union Canal (one that my daughter had never boated on) and then back. We spent a few days in Oxford before we started.
Daughter and Granddaughters went shopping and Jerry and I went to the Ashmolean museum and looked at antiquities.
Then we embarked on our cruise. For 17 days we slid through the murky, glassy waters of the canals. Jerry and I worked more than 100 locks, and he operated a number of lift bridges.
Many of the lift bridges remained open but had pull chains that walkers who needed to cross could pull down the bridge with. The weather was sometimes fine, sometimes overcast, and occasionally light rain fell, but for the most part is was good.
We passed through areas where trees made a sort of arching green tunnel over the canal, other places where we looked over the lovely well tamed British countryside.
There were many swans.
At one part of the Grand Union there was a real tunnel, narrow and spooky that took about half an hour to traverse. It was just wide enough to pass another narrow boat, which we did one time.
We passed through one largish city, Banbury,
and many pretty small country villages. We saw swans (I took hundreds of pictures of swans), ducks, geese,
herons. Sometimes there were accents of clear yellow autumn trees or bright red hanging vines. And there were red berries everywhere, rose hips and hawthorns. Sheep ran away as the boat passed near them, cows watched with interest.
Pigs just kept on eating. There were many walkers with every breed of dog on the tow path beside the canal. And there were swans.
The pretty arched bridges, some brick, some metal, were numbered and the captain had a guide so we could tell where we were.
They created framed vistas and graceful reflections on the mirror of the canal surface. Everything was reflected: trees, sky, clouds, grasses and boats.
As Pangolin glided along at about 3 miles and hour, trains, passenger and freight, suddenly streaked across the fields and through the woods.
Traffic rumbled across the bridges and beside the canal on highways. We often chatted with other boaters at the locks and one gentleman remarked to me on the contrast between 18th century and 21st century transportation. And there were swans.
Sometimes Jerry and I walked along beside the boat when the locks were very close together — there were flights of up to 8 in a row. We raised or lowered the paddles that held back the water and opened and closed the gates to let the boats pass in or out. It was often hard work and we got exercise. In some places the locks accommodated two boats at a time and our captain maneuvered with great skill as she slid our boat into place. Turning points for boats are infrequent and in some places where the waterway widens because of a business or a marina (many boats stay in marinas) there were signs that said “no turning.”
Most of our meals were on the boat, but every few days we moored up and walked to a country pub, sometimes in a village, sometimes along the tow path. The food in these pubs is variable, but can be good.
At one point as we were gliding through an open country area our captain spotted another boat approaching and gleefully called out, “It’s Dusty!” Dusty plies the canals with fuel which he sells to boaters, so we got a new supply of coal (he heaved the bags onto the roof) and filled us up with diesel.
He recommended mooring places and delivered the latest canal news. Soon after that we moored up and there were swans.
At the end of our trip it was getting cold. And it rained from time to time. We were glad to get back to the Oxford mooring.
We ended by visiting with old friends from the days my daughter lived in the little village where my grandchildren grew up– friends who had visited us here on Lummi last summer. They took us out to the pleasant pub near the Oxford mooring and we had a good dinner. The next morning we flew away to our home in the Pacific Northwest. There won’t be any swans here until mid winter when they start migrating north to Yukon.