February 8, 2013

Earth, wind, fire — and flood

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 1:30 am

I thought I’d posted the following way back in January, but since I wasn’t expecting any comments, I never checked…  I find some internet inattention means it never appeared….

Never mind!  Life has barely changed.  I was away in February, but the wind was, I am told, unremittently in the east.  I returned this week to a promise of spring, but the weatherpeople assure us that it is back to winter next week.

Below, for what it’s worth, is my January post:

The wettest English summer on record gave way to an autumn with rain still failing. For weeks every lock on the Thames sported red boards — forbidding navigation to all but the foolhardy — and scuppered my plans for river cruising.

Some boats who ventured out despite the warnings sank. Others who stayed obediently at home were ripped from their moorings, swept into open weirs, and also sank. The canal was mostly safe, but the southernmost end of the South Oxford, where I moor, is fed by the River Cherwell, the smaller of the two rivers that flow through the city. The water here can also rise and fall quickly: leave your ropes too tight as the levels change, and your boat may list, fill with water, sink. The internet was full of sad tales and dire warnings.

Returning home from my autumn canal cruises, I tied Pangolin to her moorings in late October and stayed put. I missed the boaters’ Christmas dinner at my old mooring. Last year I brought her singlehanded through the four lift bridges, four locks and seven miles between me and the Rock of Gibraltar, and tied up in the pub garden for the Christmas fun, but the last part of that journey crosses the River Cherwell, and this year I didn’t dare risk the floods. I made a tentative plan to take the journey for New Year instead, but once again I googled the Environment Agency’s account of the swollen river, and cancelled my trip.

In the late afternoon of the 31st of December, in the last hours of 2012, it finally stopped raining. We partied on the towpath around a fire built in an old washing machine drum, and celebrated not being wet.

The legacy of 2012, continuing well into the New Year, is the mud, treacherously slippery along the towpath. Even the shortest walk brings it home, caked to my boots and splattered to my knees. Every visitor tramped in more, however much I policed indoor and outdoor shoes.

Finally, the wind changed direction, the mud froze, the temperature plummeted, and we were twice threatened with what the tabloid press likes to call the “Beast from the East”. An east wind doesn’t sound so bad until you look at a map and work out that if you go far enough east of here, you hit Siberia.

The first Beast from the East brought only a few flurries, but the second dumped snow over much of the country. Then it snowed some more. We aren’t used to it, and it doesn’t take much for all transport to fail.

Snow or not, in winter, as no other season, the weather dominates life on the boat. The strict regimen of the fire demands order the way no other task has since my children were small. Like a baby it must be coddled every few hours, and put to bed at night well stoked, hoping it will last until morning (I won’t push the simile any farther).

Three times a week I heave of a 25kg bag of coal from the roof of my boat to the covered space on the bow. From there I shovel coal into the scuttle and stoke the fire. I save each empty coal bag to take away the cooled ashes. Only once all winter (so far!) have I accidentally let it go out.

There are worse punishments for getting your fire regimen wrong than waking up freezing cold. Whether through careless attention to the rigours of the coal stove, or unprotected candles, or some other cause, fire has destroyed two boats near me and cost one life.

At my new mooring, just around the corner on the cut that links the canal with the river Thames, a boat burned so fiercely that the bones on board could not be identified for weeks. At my old mooring, my old next door neighbour leapt naked in the early hours one Saturday morning, sans teeth and spectacles, to watch blurry-eyed as his boat blazed.

Compared to that, my troubles are small. The taps froze and I eked out the remains of water onboard most unhygienically. Stoking the fire, I counted the hours until the promised thaw.

It came sooner than predicted; I was sorry when the last promised snow fell instead as rain, but the little warmth it brought came, at first, as a relief. Towards dawn, when the wind swung back to the west, and blew in, one after another, a bank of Atlantic storms, I shed one of the two duvets I had been snuggling under.

Now, the canal is again filled with the brown run off from flooded rivers and the towpaths are thick and slippery with mud. If it weren’t so bloody cold getting out of bed in the morning, I’d fill up my water tank and vote for an east wind all winter long.


  1. Sitting in my centrally heated suburban house reading your description of sinkings and fires and frozen taps and hauling bags of coal around, I’m reminded of a poem they had on the underground when I lived in London in a previous lifetime:
    In February, digging his garden, planting potatoes
    he saw the first Lapwings return, and came
    indoors to write to me, his knuckles singing
    as they reddened in the warmth.
    It’s not romance, simply how things are
    you out there in the cold, seeing the seasons
    turning, me with my heartful of headlines
    feeding words onto a blank screen.
    Is your life more real because you dig and sow?
    You wouldn’t say so, breaking ice on a waterbutt,
    clearing a path through snow. Still it’s you
    who sends me word of that other world,
    pouring air and light into an envelope so that
    at night, watching the same news in different houses
    our souls tap out messages across the icy miles.
    (Maura Dooley: “Letters from Yorkshire”)

    Comment by John Stumbles — March 9, 2013 @ 1:27 am

  2. Glad to know you are well, and that Pangolin is still in one piece. I’m just back from Brazil. Stay warm.

    Comment by Cecelia Fielding — March 18, 2013 @ 7:36 pm

  3. With no let-up in the seamless sequence of the foulest weather I can remember, I worry for ‘Pangolin’ and you this far into 2013. I hope that there have been bright spots in what must have been end-to-end low temperature struggle.
    With raised consciousness of canal travel here at home following a school day-trip that Maisie and I made on a broadboat on the Grand Union, we may well be on the cut some time this year. Maybe we could come up and visit you at some point.

    Comment by Dick — April 11, 2013 @ 9:13 am

  4. My god it’s a treat to read you. I’m convinced you could write about taking out the garbage in a way that would keep the reader glued to the page. A massage for my mind, is what this is. Never mind that it’s a rather poor analogy, but the end result is that I feel treated to the most pleasurable sensations. Time for another post, woman!

    Comment by Deborah — June 9, 2013 @ 11:17 am

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