November 21, 2013

Burning bright

Filed under: Canal,misc,Oxford — Duchess @ 9:33 pm

This time of year boater small talk is invariably about the fire. In September and early October, not long after hello, and how are you? we invariably ask, lit your fire yet?

Boaty Brits are not so different from other sorts, and moderation is still where virtue lies. Eyebrows are raised at news of fires before the second half of September, and the unreasonable abstinence of those who wait until November is likewise quietly despised.

But now, without controversy, the morning and evening mist above the canal is thickened with smoke, and the distinctive smell of burning coal drifts along the whole length of the city towpath moorings. Even the hardiest among us have long since lit their fires, and almost to a one we have the same goal: to keep it going continuously until sometime in March or April, when the boater greeting will change again: Still keeping your fire in? (with, perhaps, another raised eyebrow at any unusual indulgence.)

Each year, though this is my fifth winter aboard, it takes me a few weeks to get the hang of keeping the fire in. In October I often let it go out, because the discipline is new each autumn, and because warm Indian summer afternoons lure me to forget how grumpy and cold I will be in the evening, kneeling before the stove and blowing on tiny, reluctant sparks. If embers only understood cussing, they would certainly glow red.

The colder days and long nights of November bring more focus, and though I no longer forget to stoke the fire, a strong desire to stay in bed – it’s too dark and too cold to get up – means I risk the night before’s pile of coal turning to ashes long before I’ve dragged myself from under the covers. More tiny, reluctant sparks, and more bad language.

But all has been well, and the fire continuously lit, for 10 days or so, and I am congratulating myself that I have got the hang of it for another winter on board.

I thought I might try to keep a diary of this winter on Pangolin, and this is my first entry. Perhaps when I am really cold and lonely and tired of the dark, and have nothing interesting to say, I will post about the opposite – the warmth and companionship and light of the summer just gone.


  1. Yes! Please! Keep that diary! Martin and I were just talking about you yesterday, wondering how the onset of winter was affecting you. Now we can log in and find out … xo

    Comment by Tessa — November 22, 2013 @ 10:17 pm

  2. I flirted with the idea of canal boats after ten years on the council housing list, then opted for a Park Home. I have never regretted that decision, not least being 5’11” tall. Also I had got a very rude reply from English Waterways re licensing, which was guaranteed to discourage anyone from taking to the water. Good luck keeping the fire going all winter.

    Comment by The Poet Laura-eate — December 4, 2013 @ 5:59 pm

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