We’re big fans of Timothy West and Prunella Scales ‘Great Canal Journeys’ in our house, I hope you are in yours. The programme is a joy, serene and informative and also funny. We love it so much we were inspired to actually hire a canal boat for a recent holiday.
Thing is, TV is a liar. When Tim and Pru are aboard there is some lock keeping where Pru wields a windlass as if it’s a feather duster. Sometimes there’s a little light tunnel navigation a brief history of the engineering of the brickwork or the haunted spot in the middle where some poor navvy drowned. After they emerge into daylight they moor up at some idyllic spot and there’s a glass or two of wine already chilled, a crossword open, pencils sharpened. It’s appealing. You always feel as if you are sitting with them, relaxed and in the company of old friends.
What Tim and Pru never reveal is the hard graft that is a canal boat holiday. It is, in every sense, an adventure.
Possibly the dice were loaded against us for this escapade. We had both had a flat out flu the previous week, sweating profusely and aching as if our bones were being used by the Devil for his very own xylophone. Perhaps you had that flu too, it was going around. Anyway, we had stopped sniffing just enough on the Thursday to look forward to heading up to Trevor basin on the Friday and picking up our craft for the week, the estimable narrowboat ‘The Golden Lark’. We imagined that it would be relaxing, recuperative.
Here’s your first problem. A canal narrowboat is really a big empty workhorse of a boat. It is not a pleasure cruiser by nature. In its heyday it was loaded with coal and china and pig iron and trundled up and down the intricate web of the waterways of Britain. I have always loved canals and their history ever since Mr Pennington started waffling on about it during my secondary school history lessons. I loved the idea of these secret and hidden paths through the hearts of our post-industrial cities. You’d be surprised how many canals you’ve driven over, walked by or passed unawares. They skulk and lurk under bridges and dual carriageways and they were the M6 of their time. In its heart, a canal boat is the Georgian equivalent of an articulated lorry, built for trade and industry. This, you might think is not an issue. You would be wrong.
Also the ‘narrow’ in the moniker ‘narrowboat’ gives away the other slight issue. They are quite spacious, just in a long thin sort of way. We didn’t mind the dimensions of the galley and cabin seating area or the rather snazzy James Bond villain chairs it was equipped with. I might have mentioned it before but my husband and I are bred from Welsh pit pony and Irish bare knuckle boxing potato farmers. We’re not large in dimension.
The canal boat cabin bed wasn’t large either. A Great Dane or Wolfhound might have curled up comfortably. I balanced on the port edge, my husband snored on the starboard side, his back chilled by the side panelling of the boat. I had thought ahead, drilled by camping trips, and brought extra blankets and sleeping bags.
This was a wise move because it turned out that Putin had plans and sent a further Beast from the East. On Sunday morning we woke up to find a foot of snow on the boat and surrounding countryside.
This was, at first, one of the seven wonders of the canal world. They are the secret slipways and through routes that allow you to chug along and see the backsides of things, the untidy and the private. You are, as Celtic myth would have it, between the worlds of land and water, you are riding the borderlands. The whiteout was dotted with wild trees and wilder geese, brought down by the storm. The sky lowered above us a glorious bronze grey, heavy with the promise of further flakes.
We had all our clothes on. That didn’t come out quite how I wanted to write it. It makes it sound as if there was some sort of naked orgy previously, what I actually mean is, it was so cold we had to wear ALL OUR CLOTHES. I personally, on the Monday morning, was wearing leggings under my trousers, a long sleeved t-shirt, two dresses, three heavy duty cardigans, a tweed jacket, my faithful fleecy lined raincoat, my survival poncho, four scarves and a hat.
The thing is that a canal boat holiday is just that. You are on board and you have to chug along the, well, canal, for several hours a day. The reasons for this are twofold; if you don’t chug along you don’t get anywhere and b. if you don’t keep the engine running for 5-6 hours you don’t have any power in the evening and have to run the engine at your mooring. This is not great. Firstly the engine lends a waft of diesel to all the proceedings within the narrowboat (crouching, scrunching, bending mostly). Secondly it is noisy, for you and whoever might be moored up beside or behind you.
We chugged along in the bitter and biting wind, the exact one Masefield was thinking of in his poem ‘Sea Fever’.
There was no escape. Also that biting wind simply pushes the narrowboat around like a paper boat on a park lake. The lovely gentlemen who gave us the introductory tour of the boat and its workings did warn us ‘The wind is not your friend.’ It is quite disturbing to see your front end drifting sideways so that you are, essentially tacking up the narrow waterway. Narrowboats are long, canals are not wide, it’s a dodgy equation. That’s why they give you a grappling hook and a big, giant pole to shove yourself away from the bank. The tiller swings this way and that, the boat is slow but steady and deadly. There is no real margin for error.
We persevered to a place called Prees Junction where we thought we might moor for the night. The landscape, draped in ice and snow became more and more mystical. There were the Meres by Ellesmere, lakes scooped out by the ice age and eerily quiet, bereft even of the hardiest dog walker. Our only companions were the crows, flapping like black pirate flags from tree branch to bare bough.
Prees Junction. On that windbitten afternoon this place looked like a set for a horror film. There was an empty building, barren and dishwatery canals in two directions, distant malevolent looking lift bridges to block our way, windlass or not. And then the wind whirled us, around, angled us again, around, shoved us towards the distant bank. Shoved us back here, over there, until the movement of the tiller was like our sword in a duel with the element itself. The engine growled in reverse and my husband said at last ‘That’s it. We’re going back to Ellesmere for a curry.’
We had fun. Don’t misunderstand. We were lucky in that we had most of the canal to ourselves. Just as well considering the terrible steering and the whim of the weather. We saw the arse end of Shropshire at its most pagan, white and ancient with snow. But each morning the necessity of dropping down into the engine pit to check water, oil and turn the stern greaser was stressful. Yes. A stern greaser. We have no real idea what it did, just that it was vital. It was also, for 48 hours of our trip, frozen.
There was the night the electricity failed because we’d only been chugging for three hours that day. We had moored at Chirk and made the two mile escape to the castle instead, finding that the world sways a little when you leave the water. There was the fact that the door was not a sealed unit and so, at night you could watch the snow drifting in through the gap at the top as the wind hammered to be let in. Well he would wouldn’t he? It was cold outside.
To sum up the trip. It was very different from anything we’ve ever done. Atmospheric. Yes. Wild. Yes. Primitive. Yes. We even had to take on fresh water daily, seeking out the black and white hydrants to fill the tank.
Did I mention the toilet? No? Probably just as well.
As a small child, after my dad bought a car, we used to go on various jaunts and, of course, to visit our grandparents in the nearby towns. I would be slumped in the back after an evening at my Grandma’s house in Little Hulton, full of prawns and salad cream and Tunnocks teacakes as a general rule. My grandmothers were not great cooks, it must be said, a fact brought about by World War and a lack of ingredients rather than a lack of skill. My grandmother’s go-to family tea was a table groaning with celery sticks, iceberg lettuce, prawns, tinned ham and salmon all to be drowned in the tangy vinegar splendour of salad cream. There would be butter to slather over crusty bread though never when it was ‘too new’. My grandmother had an odd dislike of fresh bread. There would be pop, a beverage which she always referred to as ‘mineral’. Cream soda and dandelion and burdock were my favourites. Tea. There was always a pot of tea and white tea cups.
We didn’t always have tea there. Often we just drove over for an hour or two to visit. My paternal grandparents lived nearer, eventually moving to live at the bottom of the road and we would also ‘pop’ in there, my dad reading the Bury Times as my grandma attempted to out talk the budgie, Joey. Other times we would be in the car returning from a trip to the cinema or the theatre, Bolton Octagon being a favoured haunt of my childhood.
As we drove up Heap Brow, a steep incline towards home, there would be a small road sign stating that in that direction, pointy bit indicating right, we would find ourselves firstly in Pilsworth and then Indian East. We never turned towards Indian East, our route lay with a left turn towards home.
I would always look out for this sign and on my more daydreamy evenings I would ponder what Indian East might be like. I didn’t know anyone at school who lived there. And when we had travelled that route sometimes there was nothing very interesting, some fields, the warehouses and yards of the industrial estate and a lone pub, whitewalled and stranded. I would forget about the existence of Indian East then, taken up with the view from the car window and thinking of other daydreamy things. Only when we passed the sign did I recall ‘Oh yes…Indian East. I must have missed it.’.
It was a shining beacon of a place, harbouring all my childish hopes for a town. Green space and old buildings, possibly half-timbered, on wilder days they had turrets. The streets of Indian East would be higgledy-piggledy and you had to walk there because if you drove, well, as the years rolled by it appeared to me that the road broke its promise and seemed not to take you there. There must be a turn off that I missed. There was magic in this idea, that this place could only be reached on foot. It was hidden from view. It was quiet, the silence only broken by the song of birds, the whirr of a lawnmower, someone singing as they hung out the washing. The Indian aspect of its name puzzled me. There were plenty of Indian ladies in Bury. They clacked around the market in their glittery golden sandals, their jewel like saris bundled under heavy winter wool coats. Occasionally you might glimpse a soft, brownskinned midriff as a lady bent to tend to her grandchild in a pushchair. They were colourful, like fairies to my child self. They had long hair, plaited like Rapunzel and elaborate earrings.
Perhaps, I thought, Indian East is like that. Everywhere in Indian East is colourful and gilded. I had an idea that there were boats, something like a gondola, which might transport people along the River Roach from the centre of Bury. If there were unicorns then you’d find them in the stables at Indian East. Fires there were obviously lit by dragons.
Food of choice in Indian East would be cake, Battenburg probably because it had the colour scheme. I had it all worked out. An eco-system all to itself; it would be sunny in Indian East when it was not in Heywood. They had a lot of thunderstorms too, when the sky would turn bruise black. My favoured weather system. They also had more snow, ten feet deep at least when ours was only slush because Indian East was hidden in a valley, hence its lack of visibility from any of the major roads.
One day, I thought, when I’ve passed my driving test, I will drive to Indian East. Clearly we never got there because my dad was never driving there, we were always heading elsewhere, even when we turned in the direction of Indian East. We were on our way to Pilsworth Road or out towards Heaton Park.
One afternoon in the 1980s the truth of Indian East was revealed to me. It was, literally, a revelation. As a child I had read the sign, very clearly, from my seat in the back of the car. Indian East. I had never questioned my interpretation of this road sign. The words had conjured up the place, with its every last letterbox. I had no reason not to believe in the existence of Indian East. It was on a road sign. They didn’t make road signs to places that did not exist. I had built a city on the back of my reading skills.
I was having driving lessons by then, scooting around the environs of our town in Mr Purvis’s Mini Metro and we stopped at a junction on Pilsworth Road. Mr Purvis gave his usual careful instructions; he was a Geordie man, very patient. As he imparted driving knowledge I looked up at the road sign in front of me. There were two places listed. Bury, right and to the left Ind. Est.
Wait a moment. Ind. Est?
I looked around, at the warehouses, the tarmacced yards and drives, the high security fencing and the sets of traffic lights that Mr Purvis liked us to practice going through, junction after filter after cross hatched junction.
In one moment a city fell. The spangled ladies of Indian East vanished in their market coats, shooed into the gondolas and skiffs by the burly chested security guard from Industrial Estate. They had no place here, no place anywhere. The sign had never read ‘Indian East’ at all except to my childish eyes and I had never corrected the mistake.
To say I was heartbroken, would not be hyperbole.
I stalled the car. Mr Purvis waited patiently, puffing on his hundredth cigarette as I sorted my gears and started the engine.
One of the good things about local tv news is that it sometimes turns its bloodshot eye to a local place of interest that you might very well have not known existed before. This happened for us with the Purton Hulks.
There being little news about bin collection and rabid newts that particular while ago, the intrepid reporter was sent out to drum up something and to be fair he found a stonker. He was pictured on the windswept shores of the Severn Estuary standing amongst the ribs and keels of a series of historic ships.
They aren’t historic in the way that The Golden Hind or the Victory are, nothing nationally momentous or involving Nelson happened aboard these vessels, rather they are historic because they have come from history. They were each wrecked or beached on purpose at the shoreline at Purton after it was realised that the erosion from the Severn estuary was starting to compromise the safety of the Gloucester Sharpness canal. Over time they’ve become an odd collection of maritime history, different vessels from different decades making up a perfect whole.
I say nothing nationally momentous happened aboard these vessels but I can’t say that for certain. Each old girl lying in the sand, draped with grass or hidden amongst the reeds has her own history. Every vessel had her crew and sailed the waters of the world for a minimum of twenty years. Some of the ships are older than others, the oldest, if memory of the information board serves, began her time in 1879. A lot of tides have risen and fallen beneath these old girls’ keels.
For a site that is, to all intents, post industrial, it is a wonderful and tranquil place. The estuary is very beautiful and on the day we wandered over there, not at all busy. There were no ice-cream vans and hoards of people or even very many dogwalkers. We parked up at the swingbridge and then headed onto the canal path. I think I’ve blogged before about my love for canals and the Gloucester Sharpness is impressive, a new favourite. It’s very wide, rather like the Caledonian canal on account of the fact it was built for bigger ships coming in and out of Gloucester, not just the narrowboats with their cargoes. It serves up a double whammy of canal and coastline too. On our return journey we were treated to the sight of a three masted tall ship just skimming by.
Over the swingbridge and we turned off at the sign saying ‘Purton Hulks’. Already the hair on the back of my neck was rising at the word ‘hulks’. There is a creak to the word, a heaviness. The place does not disappoint. The path leads you to the shoreline and there are instantly two or three heavy ship corpses draped in the sand of time and tide, swirled with long grass. Bows poke out of the ground, concrete and iron rust and crumble and yet they are still strong, powerful shapes. A rudder lifted into the wind that whips off the water.
The further you go the more there are, some just a last timber or two, skeletal and hard to make out in the sea of grass. Others appear to have vanished utterly until an angle in the grass catches your eye and you see the stern, the timbers stretching, a rusted porthole. Others are like ribcages, bony with rivets. At each there is a small plaque giving the name and some information about their timeline. It is a collection, a reverse archaeology, of trows and barges, docklighters and schooners.
It is one of the most wonderful places I’ve ever been to. There is a deep magical feel, increasing in intensity until you reach the far reed beds, the vessels there lying hidden in the wind whispered stalks.
These were all working vessels, hardworking, lugging and tugging and tonnage. As I stood on the edge of the estuary I had a thought that they are a ghost fleet, anchored and resting. If you needed to, you could call on these ships. Someone somewhere might suggest you’d need a particular kind of sorcery or necromancy to reanimate the ship spirits and bring them to your aid.
You might consider what is required of you and your summoning spell to dredge them from the bank; your desperate need, your panicked beating heart, the prickling at the back of your neck, a high wind and the right words. Ahoy might be brought into play somewhere in the manner of Abracadabra.
You’d be wrong. All you’d need is a bosun’s whistle and they’d come to you my lad.
For more info just click here folks: http://www.friendsofpurton.org.uk/purtonthevessels.html
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