Carefully following the satellite navigation system’s instructions, we take a right hand turn into a dark, unkempt no through road on the outskirts of Manchester. I feel uneasy – as if we have misunderstood the directions, and have entered a world that looks more at ease in Dickens’ Oliver Twist, rather than a modern day boatyard. Straggly weeds, starved of oxygen and light, stretch haphazardly upwards from their place between the dark grey uneven cobblestones. Plots of scrubland are partially enclosed with broken wooden fences and rusted barbed wire. There is rubbish piled up waiting for that never-to-arrive collection day. As if the road is reading my mind, we turn a tight corner and come almost face-to-face with another high unwelcoming fence covered with ugly grey and black graffiti giving the impression of an area of social poverty and dissenting behaviour, with boundaries overruled.
I feel uneasy. The fence appears to shout at us that we are in the wrong place. We surely must turn round, and as quickly as possible if we are to avoid what feels like palpable danger. However, the sat nav, oblivious to its surroundings, continues with conviction and guides us past the misguiding fence. Then as if we had suddenly pressed a button and walked through a gate to another land, we find the small boatyard through a tunnel and on the other side of the railway siding. Approaching the entrance to the Portland Basin Marina it is reassuring to see the sight of a grey and windowless narrowboat being worked on undercover, confirming we are indeed in the right place. The narrow boat which is to be ours for ten days is moored just beyond the workshop. Painted sage green and cream, she looks a lot smarter than I expected. Like all well respected narrow boats, she is named -: “Evelyn”.
There are only a handful of other narrow boats moored along a wharf, all in different states of disrepair. This is a functional hardworking boatyard and “Evelyn” is the only boat available for hire.
I wondered where on earth my husband had manage to find this boatyard. And what standards the yard would have regarding a holiday boat. As I sit in the car, relieved to find the right place, I begin to silently barter with myself asking what might be the most important things to have on a boat.
Since we discovered that it was possible to hire a boat with a bed in the bow, there was no turning back on this one. Half-sized doubles were not for me. Those days were well and truly finished. Spending all night squished against the wall, not daring to turnover in case my husband and I bump into each other, is something that we have decided to tolerate no longer. Our personal space is vital…waking up with his snoring vibrating on my skin is not for me and I am sure there are plenty of things that he will no longer compromise on either. Over the years turning on the spot in bed was manageable but not something I wanted to do anymore.
We enjoy our evenings on board so perhaps the next most vital thing would be somewhere to sit comfortably after a day working on the canal. I say ‘working’….it is not work as such, as we are boating for pleasure but it is still exhausting when there are flights of locks to open and close. It certainly gives an idea of how life must have been when boats were lived on and products and cargo were delivered by canal up and down the country. On some of the canals, particularly those that pass through industrial areas, one gets a sense of the muck and grime that must have come with that sort of work and with none of the pleasures that we enjoy these days on modern narrowboats.
We enjoy reading out aloud to one another, particularly poetry, but also historical books. Games also feature and we love to play ‘Fours’ – much like noughts and crosses, but four perspex storeys high and each square layer containing sixteen holes. The aim is to get four pegs in a row whether on the top layer, a mixture of all the layers, horizontally, vertically or diagonally.
In whatever way the boat is made up, “Evelyn” gives the appearance of a boat that might be patient and calm. A man with dark hair and pallid skin poked up his head from the stern. He had been getting the boat ready for us. My husband, Michael, introduced himself and the two got talking, eventually sitting on the bench that stretched across the stern, the back section of the boat. About half an hour later after Michael had been taken around the boat and engine, we started to unpack the car and load up the boat with our bags. It was a dear little boat with a great cruiser stern making it easy for the dog to jump on and off. I stepped on board and made my way gingerly down the steep steps to the lounge area. It seemed pleasing, almost homely, with a deep red velour L-shaped sofa. No doubt it was one of those narrow boat beds in disguise as a dining cum bedroom area – but for us it would be our lounge and it looked fit for purpose. There was enough space for the dog to call his home on the carpeted floor which would keep him at the back end of the boat, reducing the distribution of muddy paws throughout.
On first inspection the galley looked a bit tight on space but everything that we brought with us fitted in perfectly. A little wooden table flap lying flat against the wall in the galley could be hooked up for meals. The alternative was to use the sofa area and erect a proper table there but that would take up valuable space which we would probably need as our entrance, an area to take off wet weather gear and shoes. And finally as my eyes took me to the front of the boat, the bed. It looked large, comfortable and occupied the width of the boat. I unpacked, our clothes fitting in a drawer under the bed and in a wardrobe.
To ensure holiday-makers are comfortable with the boat, a member of the boatyard accompanies them for the first lock or two. The dark-haired man, Neil, who was shorter than me said he would help us with the first lock and meet us at the second in about fifty minutes. That is the thing with narrow boating, nothing is ever too far away. You feel as if you have been travelling for ages, but you have probably only gone a mile or so. But when you are on the water, you feel as though you are in another world miles away from home. It becomes an effort to look at the mobile, that slower pace of life drawing you in to its clutches seamlessly. Watching a heron drying off under a bridge, a wagtail tending its young nesting in the corner of a lock gate, geese scrounging at the hatches of boats for crumbs and seeds all become the focus, rather than the world you left just a few hours ago.
We leave the marina behind us. Our first day begins enthusiastically as “Evelyn” chugs along contentedly. It takes a few hours to get a system going between us working the locks. I never remember instructions from one year to the next and it is not unusual for the locks on each canal to have their own operating system. Michael likes to be involved. Steering the boat is not sufficient for him so over the years he has worked out ways to help me and look after the boat at the same time. Sometimes this is a great asset – at other times it can be infuriating. He is quick, I am more like the proverbial tortoise….slow but I will get there in the end. Once we reach that equilibrium of a balanced working partnership, everything goes smoothly….but it can be a little rocky initially.
The Manchester area has been hit hard by vandalism so our lock operator’s kit includes a tool which looks like a gas key with which you might open your gas metre cupboard. It does mean that each lock takes longer to handle but prevents vandalism that could make or break a holiday. I am excited to be back ‘up north’. For starters, it exudes hospitality. Everyone is happy to pass the time of day, to stop for a chat. The canal passes through the inner city and huge skyscrapers tower above us, but there is a sense of fun and regeneration that has taken place with students jogging with headphones, smart little dogs being walked on flexi leads and exclusive wine bars and boutiques struggling to make themselves known to passers-by. Onlookers watch and stare as we work the locks; some even come to help where the lock gates seem immovable until brute force and ignorance eventually win. People come up to us and say that they have never seen a narrowboat use the canal since its refurbishment in the early years of this century. One area feels like an underworld of vagrants with duvets and cardboard left haphazardly along the towpaths, particularly under tunnels, offering a dry nights’ sleep. The stench of urine catches my breath. Graffiti is everywhere – some clever, artistic and innovative – some just dirty and revolting. I struggle with one of the gates which seems completely stuck. I do not seem able to dislodge it. A couple of homeless men who have been watching for a while, offer to help. They reek of alcohol, but they are outward going, polite and friendly….and more than that they have the strength that I lack. I am exceedingly grateful to them. One of them delights in looking at “Evelyn”. He asks if there is work at the boatyard. I felt sure that if he turned up one morning and had a chat that there may well be work to be had helping restore some of the boats that we saw moored alongside. If life was safe and easy I would have loved to have said ‘come for a ride and see what you think’. But I didn’t. I probably missed a chance that would have given him hope. What has the world come to where we cannot just say things off the cuff that actually do make a difference to people’s lives without fearing for our own. I felt quite ashamed of myself. There is a league of difference between reality and what goes on in my mind, I thought.
The rain has been unrelenting. I am covered from head to toe in wet weather gear so strangely it feels quite romantic working the locks alongside the man with whom I have spent most of my life. The Rochdale and Ashton Canal has some water problems which mean the levels in the locks require some serious thought process in order to reach a point where the rather battered lock gates will open. In the pouring rain anything metal becomes so slippery but I am relieved to see that roof felt has been nailed in affording some grip so that walking across the lock gates from one side of the canal to another is at least safe. Having said that there is something quite scary about climbing up on the gate and edging across so that I can wind up and open the paddle of the lock. While I wait for the water in the lock to subside, I look up from under the hood of my jacket stare at central Manchester’s regeneration. It is an impressive sight with wine bars and restaurants overlooking the canal system. How lovely it must be to go out for dinner with friends in this area. It reminds us very much of Birmingham by Brindley Locks.
We have reached the other side of Manchester and it is now my turn to steer. The front of the boat is a little hazy from my position so it takes me a while to ‘get my eye in’…..bridges are a little precarious – trying to get the front end of a boat that I cannot see clearly presents its problems but I have done a little homework. This time I am sure that I have got it right. It should be easy. Just focus on one side of the bridge, I tell myself, and all should be fine. I missed an important point though – the bridge kerb is rounded, not straight – all those confident thoughts pushed to one side in a flash. I tap the concrete which curves round the towpath under the bridge but quickly push the tiller the other way, full throttle ahead and manage to steer the boat through to the other side. Making sure there is no traffic coming towards me, I count my chickens…..thank goodness we are through.
I want to have a go at sailing into a lock. These are fraught with danger because of the amount of water that comes in when the paddles on the lock gate are lifted up. I feel I have put it off for years. The opening and closing of locks, the gates, the paddles, and the windlasses have all been my territory up until this moment. Suddenly as I begin to take on more of the steering, I feel I am crossing a line, into the world of the ‘driver’. But it makes sense for Michael to do the heavy arm work – he is quicker and of course a lot stronger. My learning to steer the boat will give him the freedom to do this. A bit like the bridge, going into a lock is not as easy as everyone makes it look. I aim for the centre of the lock by using a curved hand rail at the front of the boat which is in the middle on the roof by the bow. If I aim that rail and line it up with the centre of the closed lock gate, I think that will help me. First though I need to steer her past the curved edges of the lock walls. It is such a small narrow corridor – it feels like putting on a glove for the boat. It is a tight fit. I am looking both sides whilst steering the tiller the opposite way to where we want to end up. I realise now that my life-long suspicions are confirmed: I have short arms! Keeping an eye on either side of the narrowboat, steering the tiller and seeing above to the bow of the boat is a bit like trying to juggle. None of my body parts seem to reach and I hit the side. I make the best of it and somehow with a quick burst on the throttle to ensure the boat goes in where I want it to, we arrive shell shocked and sit still in the lock. Up above, Michael shuts the lock gates with a heavy thud behind us and ensures the paddles are down, stopping any water coming out. Every now and again as the paddles of the forward lock gate are raised, the boat begins to move forwards or backwards because of the power of the water coming in. My aim is to counteract these movements with a quick burst forwards or backwards on the throttle to maintain her position. I am new to the game and every now and again, I forget which way is forward so I realise in a mad state of panic that I have moved the throttle the wrong way. A massive burst on the throttle in the opposite direction seems to right it and I am left in an embarrassing cloud of diesel smoke. The more practice I get, the less I choke on fumes…the more gentle I am with the throttle and the more aware I become of how the boat handles. I have been told to avoid at all costs getting the boat stuck on the ‘cill’ of the lock gates, more important as you go ‘downhill’ rather than uphill. The cill is clearly marked on all gates, but someone as daft as me could easily forget which way is forwards on the throttle and move the boat too quickly and then a situation has happened before you blink your eyes.
As “Evelyn” and I sit in the lock together, the water is at its most shallow. We are travelling uphill, and the lock helps us to achieve this. The walls are high and filled with plants that get a regular watering and as we are going uphill we are right at the bottom of the lock. I take a cursory reading of where the boat is positioned in the lock so that I might gauge the distance it is dragged forwards and backwards. This enables me to reverse whatever movement the power of the water has on the boat so that I keep “Evelyn” centrally positioned, away from any danger. I look behind at the huge wooden lock gates that have just shut with a thud behind me. There is noise of water firing in all around me. I can see birds nesting on the ledges half way up on these lock gates, a cosy safe resting place where the young will be well protected. There is nothing of the scenery above to see for the moment because Evelyn and I are right at the bottom of the lock. As the water gushes through the lock gradually the level raises around us and we are lifted up to the top. The peace is restored as the waters calm. The sight of the world around us is amazing and each time it takes my breath away. Sometimes we see beautiful purple moorland, green hills, cows, sheep, ducks and other times it might be the old kilns in the Staffordshire area or the newly regenerated Piccadilly village in central Manchester. The livestock take a momentary glance as we appear from below before continuing their daily intake of vegetation. As the brownish water settles, the paddles in the lock gates are wound down by hand with a windlass to close them, the gates then open easily by pushing them and on we travel. On a good day, the sun shines and the warmth is spread all over us as we steer out of the narrow lock and make our way along the canal to the next set of locks to continue our ascent.
There is something appealing to me about the transient relationships that happen on canals. The locks are a point of gathering. It is where narrow boaters meet to work their way up or down the flight of locks or perhaps just a single lock. Helping each other gives everyone a chance to talk. Moving water in and out of locks by opening and closing the paddles can take between ten and twenty minutes depending on the change in levels and ease of the locks. In twenty years of sailing on canals I have only met a couple of bullish types who are sure they know it all (which they probably do, more’s the pity) and it is more than their jobs’ worth to help in any shape or form. The norm is that everyone pulls together, chats, shares information, then as soon as the lock work is done everyone goes their separate ways. These are what I call transient relationships. No frills round the edges: it is what it is. The appeal is meeting people being themselves, naturally, taking care of one another without any disingenuousity. We cross one another’s path, with no axe to grind other than at the powerful driving rain, the tough lock gate that requires all ones weight to shift it even a quarter of a turn, the shallow water making boats ground, and most importantly information about pubs that have closed down. It is a peaceful life, with time to think, ponder and cogitate.
The industrial revolution has given us an intricate network of canals in beautiful countryside. This enables many of us to experience British engineering at its very best and it is a privilege that gives incredible pleasure and enjoyment. It is the heritage and history of this way of life that is so appealing. As I sit on the bow of the boat, I am engulfed by a sense of peace that feels like an underworld known only by those in it. All I can hear is the sound of the boat moving through the brownish water. As it quietly laps against the earthy banks it drowns any holes dug out by little animals such as dark brown water rats with their spindly hairless tails and the more appealing small voles. I focus on the mid-vision of the overhanging trees in case I spot a kingfisher. Its electric blue and orange breast feathers contour its body, the speckled sunlight falling through the trees on to the startling bright colours. It is quite a small bird but when you see one you feel you have won the lottery. Breaking its grasp of the branch it slips off its perch, spying on the fish swimming below the surface. Effortlessly it dives at full speed breaking the surface of the water to grab its catch. With a satisfactory swallow from the kingfisher, the unlucky fish slithers down its gullet. Red-beaked coots meander in and out of overhanging weeds and grasses, and I catch sight of colourful jays flying from one side of the canal to the other. Tench and carp swim below the water line, goldfinches feed on insects, owls glide from tree to tree, and ducks sit on partly submerged logs nesting on weeds in the middle of the canal. I feel a million miles away from my other life. I sit on the seat in the bow of the narrow boat, wrapped in my fleece, my bare feet hanging over the edge of the boat, writing while surrounded by the tranquility of canal life. It is a little bit of heaven on earth.