As I write this I have been away on the boat for nearly two weeks and surprisingly I am not finding it too small or isolating even though it is raining again. I am on the Oxford canal not far north of Oxford itself. This is a narrow canal with none of the wide boats frequently seen on the Grand Union. It was the original water route from London to the Midlands, using the Thames as far as Oxford then via the canal which was completed in the mid eighteenth century.
Being narrow and a canal that follows the contours it has the feel of a small river with loads of reed beds and overhanging trees. Reed warblers can frequently be heard and even seen although so far I have seen no king fishers or cormorants, perhaps there are fewer fish in this canal.
At a couple of places the canal uses the course of the river Cherwell which was fortunately only on an amber alert. On re-entering the canal from the river there are mightily curious diamond locks, which if your boat is longer than about 40 foot you have to moor at an angle making getting on and off a challenge.
One boater told me that he did come down the river on red alert, but had to come down backwards in full forward gear against the flow. He managed the mile of curving river OK only to put a dent in his boat when trying to get into the lock. Some challenges are not worth taking on!
However some are. There are manual lift bridges which are hinged on the off side (that is the other side to where you can stop to operate them). As a solo boater I have been wanting to see how to operate these by myself. I had the opportunity last evening when I came across one across my path. With no one else about I moored up and lifted the bridge from the tow path side. It was a bit like lifting a light up-and-over garage door. I gave an upward shove and it dutifully lifted up out of my way, then gracefully came back down. I tried again and so did it. Realising this game of see saw could go on all evening I put on my thinking cap. I got my boat hook and with another shove pushed the bridge up again. When it was gracefully descending I propped it up with my boat hook pole. It looked really precarious but seemed to do the job. As I motored under I did wondered what would happen if the pole slipped, so I ducked just in case. Another boat turned up and followed me through. I called to them that I wouldn’t have trusted that if I was them, they asked why not? I said because I had no idea if it was going to hold, I had not heard or seen anyone else doing it. Mind my boat hook pole is quite sturdy, it is made from a tree stake not the fancy spindly hard wood things that posh boats have.
The canals are a real mixture of contrasts. As I write I am aboard a boat floating in a cut hand dug over 250 years ago. I am typing on a modern lap top, listening to Premier Christian Praise being picked up by a personal DAB radio and fed into an old fashion car radio. I fly a Waterways Chaplain’s pennant and am often greeted by other Christian boaters. On the cut there are many ‘new age’ and other spiritual seekers and well as those who are quite adverse to spiritual matters or religion. There are those who live totally on the cut and day boaters on stag or hen parties; I have seen many vikings and at least one mermaid on boats this week! There are posh boats and boats that have finally sunk or burnt out. There are the very intuitive boaters who realise what you are going to do or need and those that have not a clue what they are going to do next. You can moor miles from anywhere with just the bleating of sheep to bring on much needed sleep or you can moor in the city centre with the noise of trains and emergency services inducing odd scenes in your dreams. Of course there is also the contrast in moods. One moment you can be struggling to open a lock gate in the rain, with feet slipping on the brickwork as the gate forces itself closed again against the greatest force you can muster and the day is getting late and you are wondering why are you doing this and where did all those annoying people go now that you need a hand. Ten minutes later although it is still pouring with rain you can be joining in with the praise song belting out of the speakers as you cruise towards the nights mooring point and visions of that meal to be cooked shortly, watching the terns swoop and dive to catch their evening meal.
Talking of which, it is time to put on the oven, whilst listening to Amazing Grace accompanied by the sound of rain on the cabin roof.
Pictures will have to wait for better internet connection!