Monday, November 22, 2010

Canal Fever and Narrow Boat Dreams

   My obsessive Internet sleuthing turns up Canal Junction, with links to several dozen canals and a main link titled Choosing a Route. This useful feature allows one to consider personal attractions such as scenery, historic cities, peace, hustle & bustle, interesting villages, canal features, industrial history, pubs, and literary connections. Clicking on a canal link opens a page offering a map of the canal with a brief historical overview and canal facts: length in miles, number of locks, time to travel its length, and other features. It is here I discover England's waterways taken together consist of man made canals and navigable rivers or "navs."

Courtesy A. Denny,
   The Canal Heritage link connects to canal history, folk art, engineering, boats and barges, horse drawn boats, canal restoration news, pubs, canal side castles--oooh! Be still my heart! Every evening for a solid week I investigate these pages discovering more about narrow boats, canals, and Engineer James Brindley: He went on to act as senior engineer on the Trent and Mersey Canal. When his fame spread he then became involved, in some capacity, in work on 363 other canal projects before dying with several key projects left incomplete. Brindley set the standards for most of what followed, especially the dimensions for the narrow canals. (Canal Junction:; accessed 11/20/2010) 
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct over R. Dee
   Thomas Telford and John Rennie follow in Brindley's wake, expanding the canal system further. Telford (1757-1834) favored the use of cuttings and embankments in the construction of canals and is the architect of the Llangollen Canal's cast iron Pontcysyllte and Chirk aqueducts--engineering feats recognized for their brilliance as a UNESCO World Heritage site in June 2009. Telford opts to use long embankments and deep cuttings to ply a more direct route from point to point.
   One evening perusing Canal Junction I spot a button titled Boat Owner Centre. It is the Mother Lode of links to boat yards & marinas, canal boat builders, boat sales, and canal boat systems. I visit dozens of boat builders' websites. I am amazed and enchanted by the beauty and variety of the boats available. This site is a smorgasbord of delicious options and a feast for my canal and narrow boat besotted mind. I discover modern narrow boats offer the same amenities as motor homes and caravans.
   One may purchase a used and more or less well loved boat for the reasonable amount of thirty five to seventy thousand dollars, or commission the build of a new boat for seventy five to one hundred and fifty thousand dollars--or more. Depending on the length of the boat and the amount of money one wants to spend, it is possible to cruise simply with basics such as a shower, toilet, modest galley and living area, cabin with built in bed and closet, and central heating or--if money is no option--splash out on a custom interior with fine woods and extras such as air conditioning, washing machine, dish washer, a full size galley and bath, and satellite television in multiple sections. How on earth did narrow boats go from working barges with scant cabin space for a boatman on the move, to luxury water dwellings?
   By 1835 the English canal system was functioning at its peak. Great Britain's waterways stretched from London to Oxford, Nottingham, Manchester, Leeds, York, Liverpool, Birmingham, and Bristol, with a history of seventy year's service to trade and commerce. There were those who refused to believe anything could displace the canal system in England's economic schemes--and others who saw a new technology making steady headway, and who sought ways to cash in on it.   
Courtesy L. Biggs, NB Valerie
   Railways began development in England at the turn of the nineteenth century when the first public railways began operations in London in 1803. By 1807 railways in Wales were hauling coal to collieries and the first passenger fare paying railroad was established in Swansea. The era of railways launched itself in 1830 with the viability of the Liverpool & Manchester steam passenger rail service and large scale rail lines were built across England; the age of the steam engine arrived with a cloud of vapor and a piercing whistle to challenge the economic feasibility of canals. 
   According to Stan Yorke in his book English Canals Explained: Under the original canal acts the canal companies were prevented from transporting goods....the boats were therefore owned and operated by separate carriers such as Pickford, who also employed the boatmen. The boats themselves were all wood construction, as they always had been, and drawn by horse. The ability of the narrow boats to use both wide and narrow canals made them virtually standard for all long distance work...cabins had been fitted to the boats early on to allow the men to take longer journeys which might involve being away from home for several days. These cabins carried the boat's registration number, the name of the owner and the boat's home town....the boat men were well paid and were able to maintain a home for their wives and children. (p. 24)
Courtesy of  L. Biggs, NB Valerie
   The inevitable growth of the railways was faster and more unstoppable than the canals had been. The advent of rail overtook the canals and carrying companies had to find a way to cut expenditures in order to compete. Some companies formed alliances with the railways; others cut expenses closer to home, and by the mid- nineteenth century boatmen were faced with the inevitable truth: they had to cut the cost of their labor or find other work.
Traditional cabins courtesy  L. Biggs
Necessity is the mother of invention and the hard truth facing the boatmen meant giving up their homes on land and moving their families aboard as crew. "The carrying companies paid the master of the boat for the mileage traveled and the type of load, from which he had to reimburse his crew and feed the horse." (English Canals Explained, S. Yorke, p. 29) With no additional monthly bills, the boatmen managed to continue making a good living, and a few were able to become independent operators owning their own boats, known as number 1s. Eventually things became so tough on the cut many families disconnected from land life as they struggled to make ends meet. Working incredibly long, tough hours they raised entire families in a cabin seven foot wide by nine foot long. The boatmens' wives sought to make their cabins homey by hanging brasses and having the interior painted when the boat was in for repairs. The familiar roses and castles motif appears on boats during this period.
   At the turn of the 20th century diesel engines begin to replace horses. By the 1940's horses were nearly gone from the cut. With the development of modern gasoline powered engines the age of the long haul truck--or lorry as they are called in England--ascended in importance and roads were improved to support freight hauling.
© Sonia Rolt 1994
   By 1939 the nearly 3000 miles of canals and navigable rivers passed unnoticed by the majority of the British population. Many of the canals had fallen into disrepair and some had disappeared all together. A writer and engineer named R. T. C. "Tom" Rolt purchased a 70 foot ex-working boat named Cressy and refitted her for living aboard. He spent his honeymoon and a good part of the following year cruising up the Oxford canal and throughout the Midlands. He and his bride Angela witnessed firsthand the weed choked cuts, broken lock gates, and dried up canals. Published in 1944, his book Narrow Boat became a best seller, bringing the derelict canal system to the attention of the public, leading to the formation of the canal restoration movement and the founding of the Inland Waterways Association. 
Reading, England © Sue & Vic,
    Today canals are being restored at an unprecedented rate and new canals are in the planning. Canal side properties command a high price, and cities such as Birmingham, Bristol, and Reading have rebuilt and redefined canal side civic space with shops and public moorings. Towpaths offer space for walkers, joggers, bikers, and those who like to fish. They are linear parks passing through some of the most beautiful country on earth. England's canals and navs travel through every major city and hundreds of miles of open countryside. One can moor up in the heart of London at Paddington Basin, take a walking tour of the area, do a bit of shopping, see the sights, and be on the move again out into the countryside. In the space of a few days one might pass the 12th century ruins where a long dead English king was born and five miles further on around a curve come upon the 5th century Roman ruin of a long forgotten god. 
Oxford Canal, © Mortimer Bones
   In America one travels across this vast continent measuring distance traveled in thousands of miles; in England one travels across an island barely 800 miles long, measuring distance traveled in thousands of years. 
   Now I go to bed at night and have narrow boat dreams. I am standing with my hand on the tiller;  I can hear the low put-put of the engine and feel the boat underneath my feet. The wind picks up my hair riffling it gently, and I see the water moving in the canal. Looking out toward a curve ahead, I spot a boat approaching me from the opposite direction. Night after night my dream ends here.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Curiosity Becomes Obsession

     (Yes this blog is about love and my beloved who is the rainbow and the treasure at the rainbow's end, but it is also about my love for narrow boats and life on the cut. Every story begins somewhere--and we are still in the beginning before he and I ever exchanged a word. One cannot reach the treasure until traveling the length of the bow.)
     As the days rolled forward into late Autumn I found myself dashing home after work to log in and search the 'Net for information on Narrow boats and British waterways. I was consumed by a need to know who built the canals, when, and why; the answers to which tell us why narrow boats are designed as they are: seven feet wide and thirty to seventy two feet long. 

© National Portrait Gallery, London, England

Brief  History of the English Canals
The canals were designed to move freight and goods from the interior factories of  the country to the large ports at Bristol, London, and Manchester. Prior to the development of the canal system, large amounts of freight were moved coastally by boat, or horse and cart on medieval rutted roads that often washed out or were churned into knee deep muck.
     James Brindley, father of the English canals, was born to gentlemen farmers and craftsman in Leek, Staffordshire. Given little in the way of a formal education, he was apprenticed at age seventeen to a millwright during which time he developed exceptional talents. Brindley set himself up as a wheelwright gaining renown for his extraordinary ability to repair a vast array of machinery. In 1752 he developed an apparatus to drain water from coal mines which brought Brindley to the attention of the Duke of Bridgewater, a 17th century coal magnate.
     The Duke needed an expeditious and inexpensive means of transporting his coal from Worsley to Manchester. In 1759 a commission was granted for the Bridgewater canal which opened in 1761, and the age of the canals was brought into being to serve the burgeoning industrial revolution underway in England. (Wikipedia, English canals, 2010).
     Brindley's genius in canal design displayed itself in the concept--borrowed from the Chinese--of contouring. Instead of digging costly tunnels, locks, and embankments in order to bore a straight path from point to point, a contoured canal follows the lay of  the land, meandering along much as a river might. Man made engineering projects were kept to minimum as a result. Later canals would require these mechanisms so the system could flourish and grow, reaching out across the face of England, connecting small villages, larger towns, and populated commercial hubs with coastal shipping ports.  The minimum width of the canal locks and bridge holes was seven feet, hence the need for a "narrow" boat.

Horse Drawn Narrow Boats
Originally designed to haul freight on the canals, narrow boats have remained unchanged in their basic design for nearly two hundred years. Original working boats were made of wood and pulled by horse power. Boats were towed by the horse while it walked the tow path along side the canal. A horse drawn narrow boat could haul ten times the amount of freight as a horse and cart, saving the producers of coal and pottery money and time in getting goods to market. 
     The basic boat design starts at the back end with the stern and the tiller--the platform upon which one stands and the means of steering the boat. Next comes the cabin, and for those on the old wooden work boats this was miserly space indeed. They were lucky to have six feet by eight  for a wood or coal fired stove, a drop down table, cupboards and lockers, built in benches, and a make shift bed. Continuing forward the remainder of the boat was dedicated to hauling freight with beams, stands, and top planks allowing for the deck to be divided, and freight stored and covered with tarpaulins rolled up over the top of the planks and tied down. A small fore deck at the very front of the bow allowed a bit of storage space and a place to perch with a lantern when entering tunnels.
     Ever heard of the term "legging it?" As a child growing up in the Alaskan Territories, we often didn't have a reliable automobile--or if we did it was in use transporting the man of the house to work and back, which meant women and children walked everywhere they wanted and needed to go. My Welsh grandmother used to call this "legging it," as in "we shall be legging it to the market." I always wondered how Lily George came by that term--and now I know! My mother's mother was born and raised in the coal mining country of Wales and lived as a young woman in Cardiff and Swansea. She would have been more than passing familiar with the site of coal laden barges on the canal system.
     The oldest canals did not build towpaths through the tunnels. This meant widening them which was costly business. Instead the horse was unhooked from the boat, and it went on with its minder to the other end of tunnel to wait. In short tunnels the boatmen would balance at each end of a plank and "walk" the boat through the tunnel. In the longer tunnels professional  leggers were available for hire. According to the Marsden History Group "At the three mile long Standedge Tunnel expert leggers could get an empty boat through in 1 hour 20 minutes, taking 3 hours with a full load, for which they were paid 1s 6d." ( Legging it on a narrow boat was extremely dangerous and many's the man who lost his life in the doing of it. I am in awe of the technological savvy of the British engineers, and the hard working heart and soul of the boatmen. 
     Every time I watched a BBC program or British movie throughout the years I was always amazed at how many lovely bucolic streams seemed to meander across the face of such a small island, appearing in the backgrounds. Now I laugh in wonder and delight as I realize they weren't streams at all-they were canals!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Narrow Dogs, Narrow Boats, and Narrow Escapes

     Earlier in the year I had heard an NPR (National Public Radio) commentary on Terry Darlington’s book, Narrow Dog to Carcassonne, about traveling on the French canals with his wife Monica and their whippet Jim. Darlington had a new book out called Narrow Dog to Indian River. I picked up the two books from Neill Public Library and devoured them in one evening. Suddenly I realized my web searches hadn’t touched on canals in other parts of Europe. Better to spend the waxing hours of the encroaching winter darkness searching the web for European canals than spend them with spoon to mouth disease and my old pal Haagen Daz.
     With Darlington's books in hand I searched the 'Net and found narrow boats and the canals of England. These boats are not plastic cruisers. They are stunning! Seven feet wide and thirty to seventy two feet long, most of them are beautifully painted works of art. While the canals of France have their charms, the waterways of England stirred something in me. A far off voice echoed the word, “Home.” Home??  Really??? Clearly grief, loss, and too much time spent Googling in the dark have driven me mad. I’ve never been to England and I don’t like to travel. Let me repeat this: “I don’t like to travel.” And why is that?
     I was six years old the summer of nineteen sixty three. After a late winter suffering through chicken pox, measles, and mumps I weighed all of thirty eight pounds; a tiny flaxen-haired doll with skinny arms and legs and large green eyes. My mother and Bill--the man who would become my step father--thought a month long vacation in Mexico was just the ticket to repair their fraying relationship. It would also be a great escape from Alaska’s short, mild suggestion of summer.
     We flew out to Seattle, Washington where Bill bought a new cream colored Volvo sedan. Driving south through Oregon and down into southern California, we passed palm trees and sandy beaches. I remember the San Diego Zoo. It was where the heat began to squeeze me in its fist. The animals were wildly fantastic to a child used to bison, bears, fox, and moose. I rode on a giant tortoise and laughed with delight at the long, black tongues of the giraffes.
      We drove southwest into Texas. This was in the day before seat belts and air conditioning. It was a hundred degrees Fahrenheit in the shade—literally--and probably one hundred and five in the car. The further south we traveled, the hotter it got; the hotter it got, the sicker I got. I vomited all my meals, crying for water, only to lose it shortly after draining my cup.
     We made it to Mexico City where I fainted in a fancy restaurant. I also remember the doctor who called on our room and examined me. His hands were lovely; long fingered, brown skinned, and cool.  I recall him telling my mother,
     “Your child, she is sick from the heat. I think this little one cannot tolerate it and you must take her north right away to a cooler climate or else we will have to bring her to the hospital. She has lost a lot of weight and she will not last much longer here. It is very serious heat stroke.”
     Mother and Bill took turns driving and sleeping; the car ate up the highway at eighty miles an hour. Volvos in those days had a small compartment behind the back seat, under the curved rear window. It was there I slept, curled up in a fetal position four days and nights, passing the long, dreamless miles of insufferable heat. I recall waking once when we stopped for gas somewhere in the desert north of Mexico City. I opened my eyes and looked up to the curved window and the bright, blue sky. Three old abuelas were bent over the back window staring in at me in amazement, their skin brown and folded with wrinkles, eyes black with wonder and surprise. Wizened faces framed by scarves of dark lace, the women whispered softly, “Ang-hel! Ang-hel!” They thought I was an angel like the ones seen on the tops of Christmas trees and carved in bas relief on cathedral walls.
     The further North we traveled, the cooler the weather grew. By the time we reached Montana my appetite returned. In Canada I finally began laughing again. My body remembers every torturous, sweating, life sucking mile of that trip. I still associate travel with high speed, heat, vomiting, and loss of self control.
     I suspect my liking of small, cozy spaces is also a leftover of the ill-fated Mexico trip. The Volvo’s back cubby was small and safe. After we returned home I refused to sleep in a bed. I could only fall asleep by climbing into the black fabric fold attached to the sofa bed in which Mother and Bill slept. During the day it covered the metal hinges when the sofa was folded up. At night this fabric sling hung down underneath-- a small, dark hammock of safety.
    In the October darkness of the present moment my heart was absolutely taken by the British Narrow boats. They are form and function wrapped in art and history. I think to myself that a Narrow boat is the best of all worlds! A self contained miniature version of a homesteader’s cabin traveling at a top speed of four miles per hour. I am knocked sideways by my sense of surprise and delight.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Curiosity Leads to Synchronicity

    In the October dark evenings I spent countless hours searching the internet for information about European canals. I Googled the Canal Du Midi first and discovered this “canal of the two seas” was conceived in 1662 by Pierre-Paul Riquet as a short cut between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean as a means of safely delivering freight from one coast to the other.
     In the 17th century the only means of freight transport consisted of month long voyages in open ocean where the likelihood was high one might lose one’s ship and its contents to devastating ocean storms, Barbary pirates, or hostile Spanish ships.
     12,000 men and women labored by hand for fifteen years to dig this “trench” across the width of Southern France. The canal opened in 1681. Many of its ninety one locks and three hundred and twenty eight structures such as bridges, aqueducts, and tunnels were carved by hand out of solid bedrock. Commercial cargo traffic ceased in 1980—two hundred and ninety nine years of freight safely delivered though human ingenuity! In modern times France’s Canal du Midi serves tourists and pleasure boaters.
     I found an engaging article on the European canals titled “The Water Way” by Pierce Hoover and printed off a copy for Chrisi. I also included a picture of the Canal du Midi. She was bowled over by the incredible beauty of the waterway and the idea one could vacation on the canals, cruising through cities and towns, large and small, stopping to sample the local culinary and vinerary delights. 
    Two days later Chrisi charged into work all excited. The previous evening she went to her hairstylist Lacey, for a cut. Her mother-in-law Sue was with her. Chrisi sat in the stylist’s chair and showed Lacey and Sue the pictures I gave her of the canal. Sue said, “The canal du Midi. Hmmm…that sounds so familiar. I am pretty sure Keith’s Aunt Arlene vacationed on that canal.”  Sure enough Arlene called Chrisi a day later and told her all about their wonderful experience in France and it was the Canal du Midi! I love it when the universe underscores one’s actions. It reminds me there are no accidents in life. This was not the first time synchronicity was active in my life, connecting me to the right person at the right moment in time.
    Back home in Alaska in 1987 I was stumbling along after my divorce, eking out a living as a hair stylist, and continuing in my spiritual search for the path on which I belonged. I started attending Unity Church in Anchorage. I always sat up front on the far right because it was closest to the pianist/organist. She played the most incredibly soul soothing music which my torn heart needed so very badly.  It was here I first heard Pachelbel’s Canon and Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. I looked forward to Sundays for the sermons which were engaging, but mostly for the music that would soothe my battered soul.
     My daughters, Shiery and Jesseca, aged five and eight, attended Chinook Elementary School just down the street from our apartment. Jesse was particularly excited about her third grade music teacher, Mrs. Field, who organized a school district wide music and folk dance extravaganza, held at Diamond High school gymnasium. This teacher loved children and teaching, and knew how to create support in the school district ranks for a subject that is so often sidelined in favor in “serious studies” like math and reading.
     Imagine my utter astonishment upon introduction in Pullman, Washington in 2003 to Chrisi Kincaid’s mother—Sandy Field. After her divorce, Sandy longed for excitement so she packed her belongings in a pick up truck and drove the Al-Can highway from the lower forty eight states through Canada and into Alaska, where she taught music in the elementary schools and played organ and piano for Unity church! 
     We truly never know who will enter our lives and our hearts just as they are needed—and perhaps when they also need us. I believe when we follow our muse, our bliss, our passion or obsession—call it whatever you will--it inevitably leads us to where we belong, and to whom we belong.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Cancer and loss and depression, Oh my!

     Who Knew? Really, not me. I was the most cynical of all cynics when it came to true love. I told my daughters, "Love is a disease that makes you deaf, dumb, and blind.  Your brain goes right out the window and your body starts thinking with parts totally unsuited for major life decisions. I hope I've developed extremely strong antibodies to the disease of love. Goddess knows I've had the inoculation." 
      I mean, that's the logical conclusion one comes to when one has survived an abusive childhood with deranged alcoholics for parents and step-parents. They were role models for why love and marriage is a trap--especially for women. Follow this up with my own painful divorce and twenty five years of sporadic dating with men who were too self absorbed or selfish to think of anyone's need but their own; or who wanted me just until someone better came along; or who wanted all I could offer for very little in return; or who had LOTS of baggage from broken relationships or they wanted me to be their mother. I am SO over that one. After a certain point it wasn't worth the bother because I am not a woman who settles for less than I deserve anymore. I am just that stubborn.
     After battling ovarian cancer in 2008 I fell into a deep depression after the death of my most trusted friend to an owl attack autumn of 2009. She was a four legged fur person by the name of Sianna. Born in the closet of my house in Spokane, Washington eleven years earlier, Sianna is the partner I thought would share my golden years.
     S. was not just your run of the mill felis cattus. She was a mixture of black domestic American short hair and Havana Brown. Her face was sleek, with the hallmark Siamese shape enhanced by intelligent green eyes. Her fur appeared black on the surface with a deep red undercoat.
     You know how you can look into an animal's eyes and most of the time a lively animal is looking back? And very rarely you can catch an animal's gaze and see an extremely intelligent, sentient being staring back at you with a glance that informs you "someone" is at home in there. That was how it was with Sianna. She was wicked smart and had a great sense of humor.
     S. loved to play with the rubber coated pony tail bands I used to catch my shoulder length hair. In particular, she adored the red ones, pawing through the tiny woven basket on the bathroom vanity for her favorites. She would pick them out with a carefully placed scimitar shaped claw, flip the red band to the floor and commence playing hockey with it, using the bathroom door as a reverse goalie. When tired of this game, Sianna would seize the red band in her teeth and sashay into the living room to hide it in the couch cushions--for later. She loved ice cream and yogurt as much as me, and always sat quietly, using her best manners, waiting for the final spoonful which was always hers.
     Sianna saved my youngest daughter's life once when wires shorted out in the furnace and the house filled with smoke. Sparky--as my favorite youngest daughter is called--could sleep through world war III taking place on her pillow. Sianna heard the smoke alarm and hooked her paws under the bedroom door, rattling it nearly off the hinges until Sparky woke up and called the fire department. My daughters thought of this cat as their other sibling. Sparky called her Peekin' Puss Le Fuzzy Butt. My favorite oldest daughter Jesse, called Sianna Little Sister.
     Sianna could disappear into shadows and reappear suddenly to the great surprise and consternation of folks who are not fond of cats. She particularly loved to tweak their ignorance by appearing out of nowhere and settling on their lap. S. hated it when I traveled and vacillated between eagerly welcoming me home, and showing me her tail and ignoring me for a day or so upon my return. She thought the house sitter kept her dirty little secret about sleeping in my clothes basket on the laundry pile that smelled like me.
     Sianna adored the garden and gamboled like a frisky kitten (the only time she stooped to such immature antics) to entice me outside for walks with her. Peekin' stopped to savor the mint and and smell the roses, settling in the grassy shade to watch bumblebees tumble through the pansies and bleeding hearts. We sat on the back steps every morning at six a.m. I drank my tea and together we watched the world wake up and the day unfold.
     S. also loved to watch public television and in particular Nature. We had a date every Sunday evening at eight p.m.--me on the couch and she in my lap; both of us intent on the forty three inch television screen and the wildlife drama taking place in front of us narrated by F. Murray Abraham.  Sianna "got" me in a way few people ever did.
     I thought I would grow into old age as the single cat lady--the one with multiple cats who wears Birks, baggy dresses and slumpy sweaters. I thought I would write my books, tend my garden, and die old peacefully alone.
     After Sianna's death I cried myself to sleep for weeks, moping around the house in my jammies, hugging my pillow and listlessly watching public television. I was guilty of taking life for granted, feeling so miserable about my life when I'd just spent two years fighting for it.
Courtesy of
     One October evening I was watching Burt Wolfe's Travel & Traditions. Burt was standing on a cruiser in the middle of the Canal du Midi in France, talking about the fabulous views, the food, the wine, and life along the canals. As I watched I swear the words, "Insert Chrisi Kincaid here" appeared across the top of my television screen. I sat up suddenly, engaged. I may be worthless and inept at my own personal love life but I am a secret romantic who can always go to bat for others.
     Chrisi is my dear friend and workmate who lives on a farm with her husband Keith. They were college sweethearts and have successfully raised four kids, numerous herds of cattle, and lots of grand mischief together. They haven't been on a vacation alone in nearly twenty years--not since their children were born. I could see them in France, boating down the river, enjoying each other amongst the delights of the Continent. I decided to Google this canal boat thing and give farmer Kincaid's wife some info and a push to plan a vacation alone with her husband.Who knows what it could lead to?