Finding ways to create something beautiful in the dark nights of a complex world
June 26, 2022

Love Letters (Written in Canal Water)


Odd little shards of memory take on new meaning. A young man clinging to the side of a bridge, a walk around a reservoir, a canal-side pub, a bridge crossing the Grand Union. It is funny how, looking back, distinct paths and interconnections can be found. It is, sometimes, tempting to see them as clear paths that we are destined to follow. However, sometimes, they are coincidence or simply a case that one spots significance after the event. Whatever the case, they can also be 'love letters written in canal water'.

Journal entry:

 21st June, Tuesday, Summer Solstice.

“Mist burns off the water, baptising the canal in red and gold.

Three newly hatched moorhens, a chaos of fluff and bald-headed, 
      walk on water on a broken iris leaf. 

On the opposite bank, a smallish carp, asleep in death, 
      lies in the middle of the towpath, 
            light flecking off the lively scales. 

Just down from here the body of a vole floats on the listless current. 

How do I make sense of all this?
        Can I really live kindly and with joy on this earth?

Those three moorhen seem to know. 
         They walk on water.”  

Solstice fire

Episode Information:

Donna and Me

Just starting out together

Rock climbing book
A small book that fuelled so many dreams and taught me about 3-point contact.

Visit from the police dogs

Police sniffer dog
Happy dog! One of the sniffer dogs from the police dog unit being welcomed aboard!

Police dog sniffing fuse board
Checking the fuse board!
All ok - nothing hidden there!!

Narrowboat Precious Jet Vlog

For those wanting to watch Steve Tyrell’s wonderfully soothing and informative cruise click this link: Cruising the Ashby Canal!!! The sound of a Gardner 2LW. You can see more of Steve’s videos on his YouTube channel: Narrowboat Precious Jet. It is well worth a look if you are interested in the more practical aspects of boat-life (which I tend to stay away from!).

I also refer to the lyrics of ‘Society’ written by Jerry Hannan and, probably, most famously sung by Eddie Vedder as part of the OST for the film Into the Wild. There are numerous YouTube videos of this song. The official version is: ‘Society’ OST. A version featuring the lyrics (with rather idiosyncratic spelling) is: ‘Society’ with Lyrics.

Recording details for this episode:

Recording of lock paddle gear being raised at Preston Baggot (August 2021) and Bearley (July 2021).  

Music composed and performed by Helen Ingram

General Details

In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.

Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence. 

Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.

All other audio recorded on site. 

Contact
For pictures of Erica and images related to the podcasts or to contact me, follow me on:

I would love to hear from you. You can email me at nighttimeonstillwaters@gmail.com or drop me a line by going to the nowspod website and using either the contact form or, if you prefer, record your message using the voicemail facility by clicking on the microphone icon. 

Transcript

JOURNAL ENTRY

21st June, Tuesday, Summer Solstice.

“Mist burns off the water, baptising the canal in red and gold.

Three newly hatched moorhens, a chaos of fluff and bald-headed,
     walk on water on a broken iris leaf. 

On the opposite bank, a smallish carp, asleep in death,
     lies in the middle of the towpath, 

            light flecking off the lively scales. 

Just down from here the body of a vole floats on the listless current. 

How do I make sense of all this?
       Can I really live kindly and with joy on this earth?

Those three moorhen seem to know.
They walk on water.”  

 

NEWS FROM THE MOORINGS  

[MUSIC]

Today has been a day of chasing clouds and short sharp showers and syrupy sunshine. For me, it's been a proper summer’s day. Warm enough and wet enough, but not too much of either.

Now, the south wind has abated. The sallows by the water's edge are no longer sighing and the alders are not roaring like breakers on a harbour bar. The bullying cumulus have given way to a thin gauze of high-level cloud that smear and dim the starlight. It is moonless, but dusky still. 

Just outside, the hunched shape of two ducks, looking like an elderly couple sharing a park bench, softly chunter and purr. They're not touching, but they're far closer than ducks normally settle during the day. We're in good company tonight.

This is the narrowboat Erica narrowcasting on still waters across the night. It is so good to see you. I was really hoping you'd be here. Come aboard, lets sail this night together for a while. It's good to have company on a night like this. 

[ MUSIC]

This week’s episode is a little different in format as I want to take time on something I know that someone needs. Therefore, the News from the Moorings section is going to be slightly shorter – although I will probably ramble on as usual, and no one will know any different!

One of the undoubted highlights and most newsworthy has been the return of the Police sniffer dogs to continue their training on narrowboats. Last time they came, I missed them, but this week I was here and Donna was right they are amazing and an absolute delight. It is incredible the way they turn from enthusiastic spaniel mode, all frantic snuffling and tail wagging (panting like little steam engines) to being absolutely rock solid – not even, apparently, breathing! The really amazing thing was that one of them – introduced as the ‘real star’ spotted and alerted where a dummy package had been hidden two weeks earlier for a maximum of only two hours!! It was also really nice to have a dog onboard again. I have uploaded some of the pictures to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and they are also on the noswpod website.   

They are practicing for the Commonwealth Games, at the end of next month, where the canal runs very close to some of the venues. It reminded me when I was around 9 or 10 and I wanted to be a Police dog handler when I grew up. I had sent away for some information on careers in the Police Force – it was something to do with school, but I can’t remember what. I got back this glossy brochure and on the front was a Police man walking in wellies over some fields with a slack lead which was attached to a perky-eared German Shepherd with a long tongue hanging out of his mouth. The two clearly meant business. I was slightly worried, as it was obviously a recruitment brochure for adults, and I had visions of being arrested (possibly by some of the very officers that were featured within it) for applying under false pretences. From time to time, I’d wait for the ominous knock at the door. However, this was also clearly the job for me. Two aspects marked themselves out. (1.) It involved dogs and (2.) The wellie wearing Police man had enormous ears – an attribute I shared with him. Thus, for a while at least, my career was settled. The nine year old me would confidently assert to all who asked, “I am going to be a Police Dog handler.”

The other striking highlight has been the fish. I have never seen so many! We normally have huge carp, who sun in the tobacco-coloured shallows, with large mouths and hippo-like bodies. But shoals of young roach and tiger-striped perch – with their high-viz red fins dart and flick, stirring the waters like the Johannine angel at Bethesda. The ducks and their ducklings, the swans and their two cygnets, busy and bustle above this teeming world that crackles and flashes with light. Sticklebacks and minnows – I have to admit that my fish identification skills and knowledge is almost zero and so they could just be juvenile any fish – swarm along the sides of the boats. A month or so ago, I posted on social media the thick mats of algae that were building up on the hulls. Even cruising for a while didn’t seem to shift it. Not that I was too concerned as I quite like how the Erica and other boats can be co-opted into becoming a part of the aquatic eco-spheres. However, all that has been nibbled right down. Little fishy gunmetal grey fuselages, dart and jab in their underwater pasturelands. Where three weeks ago, all that could be seen below the waterline was a carpet of green that gently flowed and waved with the unseen currents beneath us, now the blacking (and scrapes) are once more visible again.      

[MUSIC]

LOVE LETTERS (WRITTEN IN CANAL WATER)

If you go out of Kings Langley down the towpath towards Hunton Bridge and Watford, there is a bridge that crosses the canal. Its stonework blackened by time and soot and industry. You can see where the gritty old towing ropes have worn grooves in the black coping stones, and watery light ripples and reflects off its cavernous arch. The cobblestones worn smooth first by boaters’ boots, then later by yobos – the village apprenticeship of young rebels and heroes – who used to congregate and pass roll-ups like parochial James Dean and scratch their initials on its walls. Now more lately, I should imagine, for I have not returned, the soles of the walking shoes of ramblers, dogwalkers, and those simply out for a stroll. But I do remember that puddles used to collect between them, each side of the bridge, streaked with oil and coal dust. They’d remain weeks after the rain had stopped.

I took you there once – or maybe we visited a number of times – when we were still young together and the world was huge and exciting and for our taking, but we had as yet to find our place within it and so, for a while, were vagabonds in a strange land.

I can’t remember what we talked about; it must have been something. You probably said “What are you thinking” and I could never really reply because I could never articulate my thoughts because they were too enmeshed with my heart – you were used to talking, I wasn’t – and in finding each other we also found ourselves. I can’t remember anything, apart from the bridge and you, and the way you made me feel.

Was the canal always there at the start of our lives together? Now – 36/37 years later - we are once more reunited with its still dark waters and slow ways. And once more, we find ourselves vagabond-like leaving the nurturing home of the old that no longer felt like home anymore and it no longer gave the shelter we needed.

As Eddie Vedder sings

“Society, have mercy on me, I hope you are not angry if I disagree.
Society, crazy and deep, I hope you’re not lonely without me.”   

Has the canal always been there – sometimes hidden, but a quiet, shadowy presence? Was the canal there at the start?

I remember the second time I saw you. It was across the banks of the River Gade on a sunny afternoon. I was sitting with some of my friends. You were on the other side. Sitting on the grass, feet tucked to one side, with a group of other youngsters. I knew it was you, for you were all I would ever want or need. You were wearing the knitted brown cardigan, that you always seemed to wear and I loved it because of it. You were sitting slightly to the edge of the group, smiling, laughing. Apparently so much at ease with the world and a society that, to me felt terrifying and utterly opaque. I was yet to learn about your struggles. It wasn’t the canal – the River Gade – it was a feeder for it, joining the Grand Union at Two Waters – near the wharf for Rose’s Lime Juice. But then again, we had not yet met. After all, this was really just a feeder for a love that was as yet to well into something that would slowly grow, weather storms and carry our lives together.     

I first met you really, properly, in a little church just above the canal in Apsley. I suppose it would be stretching it too much to claim the canal was an important part of our life or that meeting. Although I regularly used the towpath from Kings Langley to commute to Apsley and Hemel just a bit beyond. Weaving across the waters, on foot or by bicycle, on its switchback bridges. At that time, it was still lined with industry – Nash Mills Paper Mill, John Dickinson sprawling out of its old – disused – Victorian wharf, then a cluster of canal-side light industrial units. It wasn’t pretty, but in my dreams, I revisit it regularly and it is beautiful. There are times, particularly just before we began to move aboard, I dreamt of running, tireless, along the towpath – light-footed, never out of breath, like I am flying and could run to the end of the world. All the landmarks are there. The way, the tow path glittered, the pale circles of lamplight around John Dicko’s, the hissing steam of Nash Mills. The smooth brick bridges, the lock keeper’s cottage, where Roy Sibbley, who was in my year at school, used to live.   

 

We went to Tring summit one summer evening. Do you remember? Walking around the reservoirs under a marbling sky of soft colours: Marsworth, Startops, Tringford. The water choppy and the colour of steel. A rustle of reed flags edged black against the setting sun and goose call. Why did I take you there? I know that when I used to walk around as a child, a few short years earlier, it somehow reminded me of the Pritchett’s boat. The smell of rush matting and paraffin lamps, and antimacassars and doilies on a cake stand. But why would I take you there, at the beginning of a new life – even though, at the time, it was just a hope?

We dropped down onto the towpath. I remember us walking up passed Grand Junction Pub with its little humpbacked bridge, up passed the Aylesbury Arm. It was more a promenade than a walk. Hand in hand, following the flow of couples out for romance and an evening stroll. One of the boats tied up there, was making and selling rope fenders. They were all on display. Do you remember? You wanted to know what they were. And I remember feeling so strangely and ridiculously proprietorial about it all – this world into which we were peering. As if it was my world that I was showing you. It was totally absurd. But its strength shocked me and, although I felt a fraud, I also felt, at the time, so deeply attached to it.

I also recall climbing up the bridge on the outside and traversing over the canal on its humped arch. Three-point contact and you cannot fall. ‘Three-point contact’ became our watchword, when things got tough. It’s your contact – the balance it gives, not the strength of your grip. Relax the body, breathe deeply, three points of contact with the rock is all that is needed. Traversing skills learnt from the Express Dairies' Project Club book on Learn Rock Climbing. I’d practise climbing upstairs without using the stairs. I remember you laughing and smiling and worried in case I would fall from the bridge. I felt like a young god on Olympus, although, on that bridge parapet, there was no skill involved. Counting coup. Small, insignificant acts that, at the time, convey such great significance. Perhaps, in some way, it was my attempt to ask you, ‘what are you thinking?’ I remember at the time I was wearing a strangely designed white jumper with bright red and blue flashes on it, of which I was proud, and denim aftershave. You were wearing the coat. You always wore, slightly padded and which didn’t do up terribly well. And there was no one more pretty or beautiful in the world. And I wanted to live large in your eyes and make you smile.

 

There was also the time when we went to the Three Horseshoes at Winkwell, beside the swing bridge. It is a pub we frequently went to as children, sitting outside with the midges and our little brown bottles of ginger beer that clinked against the teeth and whose bubbles made your nose itch, watching the boats and the cars rattle over the bridge.

But that was summer and I wanted to overlay it with new memories. When we went, we sat inside, beside the fire, I remember. The walls filled with artefacts and regalia of the old canal working-days. Just down from the bridge are the locks. Dark and inky in their silence. In 1898, the lockkeeper drowned on Christmas Day. But we were young and slowly becoming known to each other and our lives beginning to meld and fold into each other’s like raw ingredients of bread.    

I remember it being cold night. A cold night like no other. A night of frosted stars. A night filled with so much beauty that I thought I would go mad if I tried to contain it. It was like walking into Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’. The night was filled with such sweeping colour that my eyes ached and ears sung with the stillness and the ring of our feet on the tarmacked road. We had walked up the lane from the pub. You were wearing that fawny-brown coat, that I later found was a child’s coat and didn’t keep the cold at bay. But I thought you were toasty warm (though I remember feeling totally impervious that night to the cold). Nanook-like we kept rubbing noses and laughing and I wanted to just hug you and never let you go and to keep the darkness and cold away from you forever and watch the stars in your eyes and listen to the owls whispering in the skeleton trees. To hold this night forever, but I knew if I did, it would lose its wonder and beauty. But I treasure it still.    

 

I could go on, but why? Of course, I am being highly selective. Canals weren’t really an influential part of our early lives. Their part in our courtship has only become significant because of our later choices. But it was never really about canals or boating. And our move here, onto the Erica, adopting a new – or different – way of life, what we are doing here and where we will be going in the years ahead is nothing really about canals or boats. As much as we both love living on the canal and how much it seems to suit us being afloat and allow us to be us. You could take the canal and the boat away and we’d still be here, doing what we are doing, trying to live how we need to live. Things might be harder, look, from the outside, different – but this – I mean THIS is nothing to do with canals and living on a boat. It’s about finding our place in a complicated world. It's about us finding a path in the darkness that can so often feel so chaotic, unyielding, unrelenting in its alienness, it's about finding the length of each other's pace as the terrain changes, again and again, and walking together. 

We’ve always been a bit scared and our paths have always been a bit dark. But that is right. The unknown, the paths less trodden are always into the darkness and we could stomach nothing else. It’s always been our great adventure of life. It’s always been how we have managed to keep growing together. Things never really work out quite as we imagine them. But that is for the best. It is the unexpected turns, the body blows, the chance encounters, that make life worth the living and the adventure worth the cost.

I didn’t fall, did I? Up there on that silly little bridge, what was it? 37 years ago? Something like that.  To be honest, I don’t think you ever really believed I would, there was a sort of hidden script of which we were dimly aware that we were both following – although it would have been funny if I had fallen --- to look back upon. But I didn’t fall. And you won’t either.

Remember, I’m here and ‘three-point contact.’

Finding the next toe or finger hole. Reminding each other, even if only in whispers, ‘three-point contact and you’ll be ok. You won’t fall’.   

This is the narrowboat Erica signing off for the night. So, from me and the couple of ducks alongside, we wish you a very restful and peaceful night