Life on a canal boat - Part III

Paul Miles man on a boat
In the final instalment from Britain’s historic waterways, the Ecologist’s narrowboat correspondent finds a literal and metaphorical light at the end of the tunnel on the Grand Union canal
Enduring dark tunnels may be worth it for the joy that comes with the daylight at the end

Cowslips, forget-me-nots and violets are in full bloom along the towpath, and rough winds do, indeed, shake the darling buds of May, so that the water’s surface is covered with petals. I am on the Grand Union canal, slowly heading south from Leicester.

Recently, I had to leave the boat moored in its wild garden and take a train to London. I saw more people in one minute at Euston than I had in the previous two weeks on ‘the cut’. Everyone beetled about urgently, plugged in to personal worlds of sound, sipping coffees from cardboard cups. Commuters squeezed together deep underground then surged en masse towards the light of the next station. I was happy to get back to the canals and their even more historic infrastructure, where the only reference to velocity is the blue-flowering speedwell.

A sign at Foxton Locks, some 20 miles south of Leicester, tells me that it will take 58 hours’ journey time and 102 locks before I’ll reach the capital again. I plan to take two weeks at least. (It takes one hour and seven minutes by train from nearby Market Harborough.)

Foxton Locks is two impressive staircases of five locks each, which raise the boat 75ft (everything is imperial on the canals). They have been in use, more or less constantly, since they were built in the early 1800s. Their ingenious design and side reservoirs means that as many as seven boats can travel through using only one lock-full of water (25,000 gallons.) Conservation of limited resources was an important consideration in 19th-century transport design, which is more than can be said for most of today’s car industry.

The locks have outlasted the new technology designed to replace them. In 1900, an inclined plane boat-lift opened. It cost £37,000, approximately equivalent to £1 million today. Compared to the 45 minutes it takes to journey through the locks, the contraption carried boats uphill in just 12 minutes, in tanks of water, pulled by steel cables, powered by steam. There is a little museum at Foxton Locks, where there are black-and-white photographs showing the lift’s engineer, Gordon Cale Thomas. Dressed in Panama hat, bow-tie and blazer, he smiles at the camera as he looks out of a steel dolly on the 1-in-4 slope. His image reminded me of Fitzcarraldo, attempting the impossible task of hauling a paddle-steamer through the Amazon. Unlike film director Werner Herzog’s character, Thomas was successful in hauling boats over the hill, but his boat-lift only operated for 10 years before the canals finally lost out to the railways. The buildings were demolished and the machinery scrapped, and the slope became overgrown. Progress is always equated with speed, but sometimes it is slowness that endures.

Tunnel vision Nearby Watford is a nexus where Roman road, canal, railway and motorway all come within a few metres of each other. As trains whiz by, trafic roars and, trumping them all, an airforce fighter jet breaks the sound barrier overhead, narrowboats chug slowly through the locks. The people steering them – liveaboards and holidaymakers – have time to stop and chat.

We discuss whether anyone has spotted the narrowboat featured on a handmade poster afixed to a telegraph pole. ‘Stolen’, it says, with pictures of a smart, new vessel and the distressed owner’s name and contact number. The name of the boat? Que sera sera.

Those heading south have just come through Crick tunnel; nearly a mile long, it is a dark, dripping intestine of a monster that swallows you up and seems to take forever to digest you. There is no illumination of any kind in canal tunnels and, travelling at the grand speed of 3mph, the journey takes 20 minutes. In the middle of this Stygian subterranean passage the darkness is almost overwhelming. Alone, under the hill, with the throaty putt-putt of the engine and the dim light of my headlamp diffusely lighting the way, I sorely regret reading that this tunnel’s roof has collapsed in the past.

Although I have been through tunnels much longer, never have I yearned for the passage to end with such ardour. It’s a cliché I know, but now I realise the significance of the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ like never before. It finally takes shape in the distance, a white arc in which I can make out some greenness. It becomes a tree and, behind that, what looks like the arch of an old brick bridge. A bird flies past. There is sunshine. Now there is enough daylight reflecting inwards to give texture to the dark, dripping arched brick walls. They no longer seem menacing but beautiful, like the scales of a snake, turned outside in. When I emerge into the cool summer’s day, I begin to wonder whether enduring dark tunnels may be worth it for the joy that comes with the daylight at the end. I’ve been far more than 6ft under and now I feel reborn, surrounded by nature, under the eternal weightlessness of our pale skin of sky. I see everything afresh – the sun sparkling on the water, the vivid green of grass and trees, a yellow wagtail bobbing chirpily, a mallard with her ducklings. I take a deep breath of fresh, clean air. I never experienced this euphoria arriving at an underground station.

Humankind has proved itself an ingenious species, criss-crossing the land, above and below, with arteries along which we travel at various speeds, carrying our loads. Over generations, we have achieved what our ancestors would consider impossible.

Collectively, we are currently groping our way through a long, dark tunnel. Perhaps, when we come out the other side, with the help of our centuries of accrued technical expertise, we will enjoy the wonder of our planet with a deeper appreciation? Until then, the light at the end sometimes seems to get further away. I hope we make it.

Paul Miles is a freelance writer and photographer

Enduring dark tunnels may be worth it for the joy that comes with the daylight at the end

More from this author