Wednesday 30 March 2016

Cynddylan revisited


The weather's making up for the long dry spell; the towpath is quagged and trench foot is never too far away. Coming over from Bristol yesterday afternoon (I'd taken Boat Teenager out to see an exhibition, but she was too ill for galleries so we ate pasties and went to charity shops instead. For that is how we roll) -a sudden hailstorm engulfed us, and overwhelmed the windscreen wipers. Admittedly the windscreen wipers are very easily overwhelmed, and often need encouragement to get going; I lean out and coax them. But that isn't practicable on the Kenysham bypass, and neither is pulling over. 

I made it to the Waitrose car park, though. And presently when I set off again, I passed three different car prangs, one involving three cars. Would you describe them as accidents, or just the result of people driving like idiots when the weather demands care?

Presently I was back on the boat and the sun came out, and the nuthatches were piping away in the woods. 

There was a strange noise outside. I looked out. It was Jim in his new boat. He'd approached in silence, with an electric outboard motor. He glid around in odd circles, looking as pleased as anything. He reminded me of Cynddylan on his tractor, and it was RS Thomas' birthday too.

As the sun dropped to the hills across the valley, the tide of shadow rose through the woods above me, and the woodsmoke rose placidly. 

Sunday 27 March 2016

a kind and gentle gale

Good Friday's Bank Holiday found me alongside the wharf at Dundas Basin, and setting out my cards and a new display board for some big pictures. It was a good day, warm and sunny, and I met lots of nice people and friends. It's good to sit out on the towpath and socialise, after a winter huddling in our boats keeping warm and trying to keep the mud at bay. 

There wasn't much boat traffic, because the level in the pound above Bradford had fallen so far that the lock had been closed to prevent further loss of water. All the way to Semington, boats were sitting aslant on the mud. Higher up towards Crofton things were even worse, and the Devizes to Westminster canoe race involved a portage for some of its length- a picture that a friend posted, of a long long row of canoeists trudging along with their boats on their shoulders, would have been comical if it weren't so worrying- is the canal infrastructure breaking down? -certainly something is breaking down....

the Devizes to Westminster canoe portage race - photo by permission and copyright of Sharon Penwell

At dusk, there was some bleating and four goats appeared on the aqueduct. Here's one of them.

Saturday was more characteristic of a Bank Holiday, with Hurricane Katie hitting us. She arrived at the same time as a long convoy of hireboats; the lock at Bradford on Avon had evidently opened again, and all the holidaymakers were making up lost time in their Dash To Bath. 

There were some exciting moments, as boats with tyro skippers entered the basin and turned hard a-starboard to pass northwards, and the wind hit them broadside on and sent them all over the place. I helped a boat come alongside; stern-faced paterfamilias was there at the helm, doggedly engaging maximum thrust all over the place, while wife and daughter looked hopelessly at the mess of ropes and wondered what on earth they were doing there; the elder woman was in tears, exclaiming that they'd had a miserable night without heating, and she was amazed the hire company let them loose on a day like that without any training; she just wanted to go home... she cheered up a little after the central heating had been sorted by a call-out chap, and at the prospect of the pub. And off they went, damp-haired and skittering before the gale's blast. 

Comedy gold was the sight of another hireboat whose huge Jolly Roger, flapping at the stern, kept wrapping itself around the head of the helmsman, as he struggled to make the corner without being blown into the moored boats. His partner struggled to unwrap him, and then to dismantle the flagstaff;  they scraped narrowly onto the aqueduct and were lost to sight.

Monday 21 March 2016

a poem about dog poo

For World Poetry Day, here's a little guerrilla poetry on the towpath. I'm sure you can work out the back story!
(Boat Teenager just saw this and said "the best kind of passive aggressive sign is that made in poetry". So there you have it.)

Sunday 20 March 2016

otter madness

The lights were on at the Fisherman’s Rest
but nobody was at home;
for their halves of mild had added a zest
to the anglers’ habitual moan-

“Oh what shall we do with the otters, me lads?
They’re a-coming on over to here
and swamping our culture. It makes me so mad
that they’re threatening all we hold dear

with their sinister plottings and otter cabals,
and something has got to be done!”
Forthwith these stout fellows marched to the canal
with rat poison, snares and a gun.

They stalked through the reed beds as bold as you wish
intent their foul deeds to perform
and they swore every otter that ever ate fish
would regret it’d ever been born.

then a cloud hid the moon, and from deep in a culvert
a whistling forthwith was heard,
and a patter of paws quite like those of werewolves, that
would make any sane person scared.

’Twas the otter apoc’lypse, aquatic disaster,
an Armageddon of Tarkas;
there was crunching and chewing, and screams, then at last a
great stillness of bones and old parkas.

And everyone swore, as they passed down the pound,
that the place was now cheerful enough
how the miserable sods with their rods weren’t around
-just the wild creatures, doing their stuff.

An otter was killed by rat poison at Marlborough, Wiltshire - I wrote this after the story was posted up on the canal Facebook group and an angler complained that the otters were getting out of hand and needed controlling- we're faced with an 'aquatic disaster', he said. He was given short shrift....  it was an important reminder that you should be careful about mentioning when and where you've seen otters. Because there are some unpleasant folk around.

Tuesday 15 March 2016

the voice on the hill


Tucked in the early mist, the hill was softly snoring to the distant woodpeckers' drumming. A line of three roe deer crossed the field, stepping daintily and with the occasional scamper, nervous at being in the open even with half the world still asleep. When the sun appeared over the ridge, it suddenly lit the kingfisher perched opposite my window, so that it blazed startlingly blue. It seems unfair that the blueness of kingfishers is brought into question - jug jug to dirty ears, I say.
The kingfisher up in that tree
Has no time for philosophy;
No longer by the dawn obscured,
It seems entirely self-azured
Presently the anglers set up their little lunar landing craft and perched on the side of the canal, working hard to disprove Donne's claim that no man is an island, and grudgingly nodding or ignoring me as was their wont.


Jack Labonowski was at work on his wood lathe. This sort of work is called 'bodging', you know. Jolly nice anyway.

Version 2

Cold though it was, the sun was bright and warm to the touch. And the towpath has completely dried out, so the weekend walkers were able to keep to the path without having to detour round the puddles; even the ones in unsuitable footwear seemed happy enough. Presently, a party of sensibly (and expensively) attired folk descended from the woods opposite, backlit by the sun so that they were all haloed. Passing as they did across the path of the earlier deer, they reminded me of the ghostly walkers in Sorley MacLean's Hallaig
Back through the gloaming to Hallaig
Through the vivid speechless air,
Pouring down the steep slopes,
Their laughter misting my ear
And their beauty a glaze on my heart. 
...except for their voices. They boomed, in that confident middle class way, deep and sonorous as an ensemble of alpenhorns. Ah, Wiltshire.

Friday 11 March 2016

distant drummer

The Bradford Flight (total locks: one) is border country; above it, the broad sunlit uplands of the upper Avon; below, the steep wooded valley that carries the river down to Bath and Bristol. And it is a frontier of the mind, separating out the more adventurous boaters from those few who prefer to keep their bimbling within the environs of Bath, and view Trowvegas as a Tudor seafarer might view Samarkand or Far Cathay, an impossibly distant place where strange folk do strange things.

We'd been as far as Seend, where the canal is closed while the bridge is being repaired; we'd struggled through ice to get back down to Semington; we'd kept watch for the barn owls that ghost the meadows in the dusk, and the roe deer that merge with the russet stubble in the dawn, their white rumps standing out like the smile of the Cheshire cat. The buck's new antlers were there, still in velvet, where, on our outward journey a few weeks back, its head had still been bare. Coltsfoot is in flower. The chaffinch has polished off its spring song, and the greenfinches are making snoozing noises. The seasons are spinning faster as we approach the equinox.

Now we dropped down through the lock to tithe barn, close to where the storms had rocked a big ash tree and caused a rockfall. The tree was down, and Jim and I scrambled up the steep slope with chainsaws, through the brash, slicing up the trunk and loading it into an old sailing dinghy to transfer it across to the boats. Hard going, but now there was a great pile of wood on Eve's roof, and Netty's foredeck, and the towpath too. We broke out the Famous Grouse, and celebrated.

I made a quick dinner of corned beef pasta and sat, too tired to go to bed just yet. Outside, a most spectacular sunset was developing. I popped out a couple of times to admire it, and the perfection of the layers of trees and fields receding towards it. Then it was blotted out. The prow of a boat right next to my bow had appeared, silent as the dusk. On the towpath was a strange silhouette, a tiny figure with a long tall head, like the Mekon or possibly the Alien off that movie.

It was Bongo George, in his rasta hat. 

Nothing could have kept me awake that night, and as I slid into deep sleep I heard the sound of not-so-distant drums.

Next morning my neighbour was keen to move as quickly as possible. "He doesn't move for a year," she said despairingly, "and then he sticks himself right next to us!" 

The other neighbour was even more forthright. "I'm a better drummer than that," she said, "and I'm not a drummer."

We loaded up the wood, and fired up the engines. Down at Horse Field, there was a huge space for mooring. A space that only endless bad drumming can create, and that we occupied gratefully. I pulled the engine kill toggle, and peace reigned.


Tuesday 1 March 2016

up in the air

Jim arrived with a great bag of climbing gear on the back of his bike. "I thought I'd do that willow," he said. "And you could take some pictures."

Jim has an informal arrangement with the local canal people; he takes out trees that represent a potential problem or danger to the canal and towpath, and their users. It saves them admin and bother - the canal volunteers can't move without a risk assessment and piles of hi-vis safety gear - and he gets firewood. I sometimes help, too, because I like doing that sort of thing. The willow was a pro bono job because the timber is pretty useless for burning, and not much use for anything else, unless you want to make a cricket bat.

"I said five years ago I'm getting too old for going up trees" said Jim. He's three years younger than me, but I didn't mention that. My younger self would have thought it surprising that people pushing towards 60 years old should be scrambling around in trees. But then my younger self was ageist.

He clambered into the harness and leg spikes, and we went to the willow tree whose bough was overhanging the towpath. Space's boat was underneath it. "He's a late riser, is Space" said Jim, knocking on the boat's roof.

Space emerged, blinking in the noontime light. "I'm moving in a few hours," he said. "You can do it then."

"Sorry, Space, got to do it now" said Jim. "We won't even touch your boat."

"If you do I shall be very annoyed," said Space, retreating into the dark fug of his boat.

Jim scrambled up through the ivy, dislodging a squirrel's drey that showered twigs down on him and looking more like the Green Man with every move. Having attached a rope high on the trunk, he swung down onto the limb that was sticking out over the canal, and as he lopped off sections of it, I swung them down to the ground. Space and his boat remained unsullied.

And then we had a glass of whisky and I drew Jim's picture.