Seven tennis balls, a float, a mop and an alligator – part two

Days slip into predictability. The ghost of the hurricane finally erodes at the summer’s warmth, making chill mornings slow to warm.
Occasionally the rain looks to set into unrelentingly grey, but the strong westerly wind clears each raincloud, storm or drizzle, and replaces it with bright skies. Titus becomes adroit at predicting the weather. Sometimes it rains on the other side of the bridge, but not on us, yet… Waterproofs on; waterproofs off.
Thursday morning Titus is particularly hard to rouse, he moves with considerably less alacrity than the pale, mini-slugs that invade our belongings.
Hungerford too looks its best from the water. We encounter ducks and swans. Swans imperious, showing off their beautiful sons and daughters, ruffling their plumage in mock displeasure at our passing. Ducks are more variable; some try to extort crumbs with beguiling looks, others scatter in hard-to-believe panic, quacking their retreat, lifting their tail feathers like bustling ladies showing their legs in their haste. Once we startled two resting mallards into a firework of duck frenzy. Other times they watch our progress sagely from their linear roosts. Herons seem few here, we’ve seen no kingfishers. The first night we heard a male tawny, the second a female. Each night some owl hoots in harmony with the soft watery noises of the still canal, or the run of a rill, or the hum of a not-so-distant A road, or the ripping roar of a passing train. We inhabit a backwater wilderness alongside the arteries of road and rail; the canal, the all-but forgotten trendsetter of modern transport. The new railways followed the old canal, as does the A4; there’s a favour in forgetfulness.
There’s a beautiful common beyond Hungerford, Hungerford Marsh, where we longed to camp, but it felt too overlooked by townies, too walked by the wrong sort of dogs. The locks became more hostile and awkward, cranky and heavy-doored as we tired of our journey. A derelict lock cottage by Cobblers lock eyed us mournfully in a way that scared us to move along, move along. Private, Keep Out signs confined us into our linear world that seemed not a refuge, but a treadmill. Eventually we stop by Picketfield lock.
The night was peaceful, supper good, we had nothing of which to complain.

I become uncertain about the exact order of things; whether this was the morn which dawned cold, in which I shivered and stiffly teeth chattered my way over cold metal lock, the metal balance beam the antithesis of the sun-warmed wood of early days. Nearly hypothermic, I have to put on my dry clothes to paddle in. Titus is again kind and attentive; a great companion when life gets hard. Or was this the day we made it to Kintbury to a lunch of well-received ham sandwiches in the Dundas Arms to top up our phones and our shopping in the picture postcard village that actually sold no postcards; was this was the day we made it to the top?
Locks came thick and fast, each wide pound ending in the next. Just before the tall, banded chimney of Crofton pumping station came into view, just as we finally bade goodbye to the Kennet, Titus found a swimming pond. He stood shivering in his farmers’ tan and dipped his bottom half in the fresh cold water. The pond was fed by a little stream of cold rain, passing dogs declined to swim in the chill waters and Titus concluded that discretion was the better part of valour.
We paddled on ploddingly. Lock after lock. Winding, cranking, walking, paddling our way to the summit, to our rendezvous with Peter and Iggy who planned to join us at the top. Lock 50, five to go and there they were walking down the towpath towards us, familiar silhouettes in an unfamiliar land. Titus gave Iggy a crash course in locks; Iggy complaining that Titus “should not torment him with prior knowledge.”
There were friendly boat-dwellers, some comings and goings. Peter chose our camping stop that evening – near a bridge he could get the car and Iggy’s boat to. I pitched my tent nearly over the edge of the canal, but I was used to that now, that brinkmanship. Peter stayed for supper. Titus moved in with Iggy. Iggy complained that we went to bed too early and that he would never sleep. Then there was peace, save the hoot of an owl and the gentle restlessness of the water.
Packing on Saturday morning was quite succinct; Iggy helped. Just under one K to the tunnel. We read the subscription and marveled at canal-builders’ attention to detail and sympathy for the landscape; a recurring theme that grew to a crescendo with the canal’s entrance to Bath, but that is yet a long way off. A boat came towards us through the tunnel; haunting voices preceded the boat’s light. When the holidaymakers phutted their way clear of the tunnel we heard their relief and it was our turn. Iggy had our light and went ahead. Within 20 metres there was darkness. Titus and I sang ‘a bog down in the valley oh’ from bog to deck and those of you who know the song will guess the length of the tunnel. There was some clashing of paddles in the darkness. When images formed of the shadows we knew we would soon paddle into daylight.
Having Iggy lightened our boat by one tent and, alarmingly, our larder by a exponential quantity of crisps and snacks. It upped the pace too. On the long pond we counted bridges not locks.
That night we camped by a bridge and looked at the map and the distance yet to travel with some despair. It might be downhill from now, but the wind was against us and the distance considerable. We decided, in a practical moment, that we would call on Peter and vehicle support to bypass the whole of the Devises flight.
In the long pound Titus swam a couple of times. I did some much needed throw-line practice. Iggy seal-launched his kayak successfully twice and disastrously once. We all plucked tennis balls from the river and in a memorable moment, approaching something strangely poking out of the water, Titus, the chosen one, pulled the mop Excalibur from the arms of the lady of the canal.
Iggy’s predictions of sleeplessness proved unfounded and one night, leaving Iggy snoozing, T and took a turn around a newly-harvested wheat field and watched a barn owl slide soundlessly overhead. There were strange inexplicable lights on the Neolithic hills of Wiltshire, a stranger malfunction of my torch, an ancient byway nearly lost in time that whispered of boggarts at Lammastide, and for a moment we thought we might lose our way…
A good morning’s paddle the next day bought us to the East of Devises and our meeting point with Peter. We emerged from the canal hungry and chilly at Coate bridge. Emerged to townish censorship and unfriendliness. However, we ate lunch on the warmth of the pavement and disregarded the dark looks of respectable folk, changed into warmer clothes behind town bushes and pulled our stuff from the water. When Peter arrived we loaded the whole shebango into the car, boats on top and Peter and the boys set to walk the six K length of the whole Devises flight and I to take the car round. Except that Peter went off with the car key and by the time he’d returned them to me the supermarkets were shut, it being Sunday, and soon I had got somewhat lost.
Rivers are easy, they work with the topography, they are always in the valleys, but a manmade canal might be anywhere. I saw the Caen flight in my travels; it looked like a tourist attraction. To travel it might make you feel like an exhibit; I felt quite glad to miss it. I asked some women who were carrying shopping bags, who turned out to be Polish, where there was a shop open and they directed in smilingly beautiful pidgin. I fell on my feet. The shop was well stocked, the locals friendly, I was soon on my (rather convoluted) way back to the canal. I’d been directed to the perfect bridge for unloading and getting back onto the water, but it was not the bridge at which I’d planned to meet the others. A further period of misdirection followed until I found them, and they had not been waiting long. Back on the water, goodbyes said to Peter, we travelled on and made camp by a swing bridge.
This could have been a disaster. My first choice of camping stop was right within the bridge’s workings. Titus, who applies brain to these situations, pointed out my error so we decamped to a gorgeous rectangle of well-manicured turf close to the canal and with an obliging piece of rough to lose teabags into. We had a distant view of some alpacas.
A nice night. A nice morning with many travellers, dog walkers, bridge swingers to chat to. Possibly the friendliest spot on the canal. Boats moved early, keen to get a run on the flight. In between Titus did parkour tricks on the bridge bars, we videoed his routine. I’d charged my phone in the car the day before, so spent a few moments making contact with the outside world. Once on the water, we felt a bit pulled by Iggy’s haste to cover the distance. By-passed nice lunch stopping places as Iggy was ahead and ended up eating on a busy, rather grubby bit of tow path. The number of hire boats increased and their crews were very variable. Those just starting were earnest, though muddled around locks. Generally they dismissed Titus’s would-be expertise due to his smallness of stature, dismissed us as below their consideration due to Marvin’s basic inadequacies. More seasoned travellers were less preoccupied and greeted us with a relaxed familiarity more like that of the boat-dwellers.
The number of moored craft had been increasing since below Kintbury, (their names an on-going source of entertainment) and more craft were on the move. Sometimes their chummy camaraderie included us and sometimes it excluded us. As we approached Bath our presence in our tiny craft was questioned more frequently, not by the jolly enquiry of before, but an inquisition, a “should we be allowed?” We were closer to home; but feeling less ‘at home’.
Still, we saw our first kingfisher, several herons and some alluring ducks.
One duck trying hard to swallow a sizeable fish!
The Avoncliff aqueduct was a spectacle. We should have pushed on till passed Dundas, but the sun was falling and I was tiring and we opted for the only available bit of rather grubby tow path we could find between the moored boats. After supper the three of us walked to the Dundas aqueduct. It was a pleasing walk in the warm evening’s duskiness, checking out the start of the Somersetshire Coal Canal. We planned an early morning get-up-and-go that was not to be…
Sadly, just before first light, Iggy came to my tent in immediate need of the trowel and bog roll. He returned after a while consumed by stomach racking queasiness and proceeded to vomit several times. Abandoning the early start, I nursed him along, getting T and I up and the kayaks packed, keeping sicky stuff separate from everything else as best I could. Our rather shabby bit of verge became less and less desirable. Titus paddled the single and with Iggy as a passenger in Marvin, we paddled to get a phone signal, the gentle rocking of the boat not improving Iggy’s lot!
We alerted Peter to our needs and arranged to meet at either Bathampton or Bath Top Lock depending on our progress. In the end it was Bath Top Lock. We’d made stately progress into Bath through the chaotic business of Bathampton, the elegant sweep of the canal, culverting, tunnels and the city’s regency architecture. On the way Titus finally managed to get his comeuppance and walk off the edge of the bank! He claims he was paying the utmost attention, but whether he was being blasé or not, he ended up in the drink. Pulled out of the water by a passer-by, he then left his buoyancy aid on the bank, which was not noticed for some time, necessitating my returning for it. This was actually quite fun as I look the little kayak, which veritably flew across the canal with the same expenditure on my part usually needed to propel Marvin at slug-speed!
At Top Lock Titus changed into dry clothes, Iggy left us (poor fellow) and having decided we would not camp another night, Peter also took most of our belongings. T and I had lunch before the flight and pulled a drowned alligator from the lock and made him our figurehead.
Taking to the water again, Titus found the lighter kayak harder to maneuver in the wind. Some rather posh woman from a hire craft took it upon herself to dissuade us from using the locks, calling me dangerous and irresponsible in strident tones. I explained that we’d come from the Thames and were somewhat seasoned in locks, but then aware that T was having a bit more difficultly than previously and that one of the locks was a double depth lock, and thinking that, with Marvin a fraction of his previous weight, we could finally press our borrowed trolley into good service and save ourselves an hour.
Trolleying was fun! At one point we had to pretend to be a car and enter the stream of traffic where the tow path changed sides at some roadworks. Folks caught up in the busy, city manner of bustle, hurry and impatience found us entertaining. We peeped a look into the ultra-deep lock and I was glad Titus wasn’t sitting alone in an empty Marvin down in the dank pothole of the lock chamber.
There was a tremendous sense of achievement as we launched onto the river Avon and in the next few hours, Titus and I regained the plodding, paddling intimacy of our early days. Bath is a mucky town from the river and it seemed to stretch forever, past clogged drain outlets and cloacal backwaters. We sent a huge scale-tailed rat heaving its big brown body up a bridge pile to disappear into a hole in the brickwork.

From the great stone arched bridge where the Upper Bristol Road crosses to the ‘jumping bridge’ on the cycle track we paddled on, and on. My hands were hurting now and I was pleased to see the rowing markers announcing 3K to Saltford, though 3K seemed an awful long way still.

We’d arranged to meet Mary at Saltford. We heard her Coo-whoop! as we paddled on down the straight. She sat like an imp, folded up against the rain and chill at the end of a jetty. A good meeting; it took T and I a while to get Marvin down the weir and moor by the customary willow where we’ve put the boats on the water before. A brief interlude of decision making and we decided that Saltford was close enough, so we stowed our belongings and retired to the pub for a celebratory curry and burger! Peter joined us, it was just a shame Iggy was too ill.
Through seventy-one locks mechanical warts-and-all, we bypassed a further thirty-six by wheels or ingenuity. We should thank Peter for his support and Berts Bees hand cream for its lubrication: Marvin for his steadfastness and FSC for the loan of the kayak. We met the cycling friends going in our direction and another cycling family, a father and son in a canoe and a single chap on an inflatable heading towards London; so we were not entirely alone in our madness.

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1 Response to Seven tennis balls, a float, a mop and an alligator – part two

  1. Excellent Aggie. Interesting and entertaining – also a massive achievement. I see a movie with Meryl Streep as Aggie….

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