Monday, 23 January 2012

Nature in the almost-raw

Twenty-four years ago Frog and I were on a train from Exeter to London. As I looked out of the window I saw a mysterious waterway snaking its way alongside and underneath the railway track. It meandered like a river and yet it didn’t sparkle and ripple like a river. It stared back at me, a flat grey mirror almost hidden by an unruly fringe of trees and bushes.
    ‘That looks interesting,’ I said, pointing it out to Frog. ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to explore.’
    I was remembering my favourite childhood holiday, when we’d visited the Norfolk Broads and my brother and I had been allowed to go out on our own in canoes and explore the vast deserted network of pools and creeks.
    ‘It’s a canal,’ said Frog excitedly. ‘I’ve always wanted to have a canal boat holiday.’
    We’d been married ten years and yet here was something I didn’t know about him.
    A few months later Frog, Dog (Brindle) and I were ensconced on Eliza Jane, a private boat we’d hired for the week on the Kennet and Avon Canal, which runs from Bristol to London.
    The canal had only just been restored and we were the only boat around. We forged a track through weed-green water like an icebreaker, frequently going aground, partly through our lack of experience and partly because the canal was imperfectly dredged. Leaping ashore was a major operation, involving calculating just where the reeds ended and dry land began, more than often than not ending in soaking wet feet. Once that was accomplished, there was four foot or so of slippery wobbly gangplank to negotiate, something Brindle never really got the hang of. Luckily she enjoyed swimming. At night we could moor up in the middle of nowhere in bulrushes taller than the boat and listen to the calls of the wild.


The canal towpath in wilder times. (Frog and Brindle, 1988.)



On the outskirts of Devizes - only a swan to make a trail through the weed

    Since then we’ve had at least a dozen more holidays on the K & A. We all loved canal-boating. Frog loved the human-sized technology – the steam-powered pumping stations, the hand-cranked locks, the swing-bridges you pushed with your bottom, the boat’s diesel engine that you could fiddle with through a hatch in the deck. I loved being close to nature and being able to walk all day along the towpath more than keeping pace with a boat that only went at two miles an hour. Brindle had a particular penchant for eating anglers’ bait and chasing ducks. Penny loved being with us twenty-four hours a day.
    Year by year however the canal has become busier and more civilised. The shrubs and trees have been tamed. ‘Live-aboards’ (permanently occupied boats) line the banks, with designated concreted or decked stretches for ‘temporary moorings’ (holiday boats). The towpath has become full of litter, and crowds of ‘gongoozlers’ hang around watching the boaters work. Our holiday last year with Ellie was anything but relaxing. Perhaps we needed a new canal.
    On Saturday, we decided to explore the recently re-opened Taunton and Bridgwater. After an excellent lunch at our favourite vegetarian restaurant in Glastonbury (Rainbows End – go through a yellow doorway and up a passage) and a quick dart into Sainsbury’s at Street to check for some emerald green trousers I’d seen in Exeter but not in my size (they didn’t have them), we parked next to a lock and set off up the towpath.
    We had a good walk – Frog only lost his temper with Ellie once – and although the countryside was a little dreary and we could hear the drone of the M5 the canal itself was suitably empty. When we got home I checked the internet for boat hire. Google directed me to a company at King’s Bromley in Staffordshire. Not much good, but I started thinking about the place-name ‘Bromley’, partly because of the suffix ‘ley’ (for more on the intriguing subject of ‘leys’, see my post of 3 July last year) and partly because there was another Bromley near where I was brought up in Kent.
    I looked the name up in my Oxford Dictionary of British Place Names and discovered that it meant ‘the clearing in the wood where broom (gorse) or brambles grow’. Bromley-near-where-I-was-brought-up is now part of Greater London. I don’t remember it as containing even a flash of green. What a lovely name but what a hideous place. I felt a familiar pang. How much we have lost.
     I try not to get on my soapbox in this blog. With a few exceptions, I find it boring when other people do so. I’ve had my fill of protestation (as also explained in a previous post – ‘New age genesis’, 12 April last year) and these days think that positive examples are so much more effective. But I do agree with the speaker on last Wednesday’s ‘4thought.tv’ on Channel 4 that population growth is what we really need to be tackling. Worrying about global warming and biodiversity are luxury-liner-deckchair-rearranging exercises. Governments should be taxing people for having children, not paying them.
    I realise however that this is dangerous ground and that, as someone who never really wanted children, who finds the company of other humans (with the exception of Frog) almost unbearably tiring, and who likes nature in the raw, I could be biased.

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