Wednesday, 22 July 2015


Canal boats here in the Midlands have a whole different set of connotations from those in the Lea valley in North London. There the inhabitants are often young eco-warriors unwilling or unable to enter London's ridiculous rental (let alone mortgage) market for property. Up here the owners seem much more likely to be men and women of a certain age who see their boat as an idyllic hideaway and quaintly old-fashioned. Instead of stacks of skip-salvaged firewood and nests of well-used mountain bikes, on the roofs of these you will see hand-painted traditional tin jugs and drifts of petunias planted in wooden mock wheelbarrows. Instead of Peruvian alpaca earwarmers the canal-boaters here sport wide-brimmed canvas sunhats, and in place of the ubiquitous solar panels here you tend to see elaborate TV aerials.

The odd thing is that the boats look very similar (though a tad neater and more pristinely painted round here) and have the same sorts of names - 'Free Spirit' and 'Rosie Lee' and 'Jenny Wren' and the like. There is also much more in common than first appears in the atmosphere around them. Here too there is something apart about the canal boaters. They are a small, physically isolated community living out their days on these corridors of tranquillity while twenty-first century life rushes past on either side. So maybe the dreadlocked eco-warriors of Hackney and Walthamstow have more in common with this particular band of Midlands retirees than would initially appear the case.

The canals really are corridors of tranquillity too. Nowadays often quite heavily wooded on both sides, except where they wend their way half-invisibly through post-industrial towns and cities, they are alive with wild flowers, dragonflies and even kingfishers. On one occasion we raced a kingfisher for the best part of a mile. It wasn't much of a race to be honest, except that every hundred yards or so the bird would perch on an overhanging branch and wait for us to catch up. The electric blue of its back against the dark water was magical, and sometimes as it faced us from its perch I would see the contrasting deep red of its breast. Truly gorgeous.

For the rest we passed through a lot of what looked like Archers country, with enamelled signs on farm gates proudly proclaiming the quality of their pedigree Holstein herds. One place boasted a 'Well kept village' award that I am sure was largely the work of a local Linda Snell (and woe betide anyone whose hanging baskets remained unwatered). Mind you, they also had a scarecrow competition that I am not sure Linda would have been happy with: one of the exhibits was a man seated on a toilet with his Y-fronts round his ankles. I mean, maybe that sort of thing is acceptable in Penny Hassett, but really!

One last little incident to recount. As we were getting ready to leave Stoke-on-Trent this morning I was wondering aloud to my ride companion where I could get some black insulating tape to hold in place the end of my handlebar tape. Suddenly I was interrupted by a white van driver who had been parked nearby. Clearly having overheard us he walked over holding out a new and unopened roll of said tape he had got from the back of his van. He said, 'here you are. I've got plenty,' then got into his van and drove off before I could give him the roll back.

Not sure that would happen in London.

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