The Shropshire Canal, affectionately called the Shroppie, has turned into one of the highlights of the journey so far. Not because of its beauty – much of it is a long, boring dawdle down a lockless straight cut – but because of the extraordinary feat of engineering that created it in the first place. It is awesome that this canal (and indeed, all of our 2000 miles of canal networks) was dug by thousands of navvies with little more than shovels and a lot of muscle.
Just south of Market Drayton, the Shroppie completely changes as it passes under a magnificent towering red brick bridge shielded by a canopy of enormous deciduous trees to reveal the deep rock Woodseaves Cutting, a hidden treasure only really accessible to those fortunate enough to travel on a narrrowboat.
I felt I had entered a woodland fairyland, full of mystery and magic, and a thought came to me: rather than a white light greeting me at the end a tunnel when I die, I fervently hope that this will be my passageway instead.
The only thing to mar this wondrous encounter was how the rattley-whine behind the electric panel at the back of the boat was getting worse.
This annoying jangle had begun two days before. So when I spotted a sign saying: ‘Oxley, Your Friendly Marina,’ just before Autherley Junction (a day’s travel from Woodseave Cutting), I drew abreast a moored boat on the over crowded chaotic wharf, and waved merrily at a grizzled older bloke in shorts, wearing a battered flat cap and standing with knuckles dug aggressively into each hip.
‘What?’ he barked
‘I’ve got a rattley-whine,’ I said.
He listened for a moment from across the boats. ‘Christ,’ he said. ‘Don’t bloody need this.’
‘But you’re meant to be a friendly marina,’ I said. ‘It says so on your sign.’
‘Just throw me your rope,’ he barked again.
Once tied up, he came aboard and placed his ear next to the rattley-whine. ‘Engine plate.’ He said. Another equally grizzled bloke appeared with wild white hair, an oil-stained vest, and a large tattoo on his upper arm. He also placed his ear to the rattley-whine. ‘Engine plate,’ he agreed. Then a third grizzled bloke turned up in green overalls stretched across an impressive belly. ‘Engine plate,’ he confirmed (Engine plates are a vital part of any engine because they absorb shock when changing gear).
This was my introduction to the three grizzly bears of Oxley Marina: Orf who runs the marina, David, who does everything else, and Phillip the main mechanic. Gruff and grumpy they might be on the surface, but underneath they are utterly delightful and very helpful.
By nine o’ clock the following morning, Phillip was in the process of taking out the old engine plate, and issuing quite a few bear-like grunts and growls in the process. It made me think of what bears like to eat.
‘Would you like some toast and honey?’ I asked him.
His face lit up as if he had seen an angel. Three rounds of toast and honey later, all washed down with tea, he had done what he needed to do, and went off to buy a new engine plate.
Upon his return, he eased himself down into the engine hole and said, ‘That were lovely that toast and honey.’
‘Would you like more?’ I said.
His face lit up again.
I noticed he was short of two fingers on his right hand. When I asked how he’d lost them, he gave a snort. ‘Them two went in’t machine belt. But I chucked ‘em away. When surgeon asked me where t’were, and I told ‘im what I had done, he were right cross. But I said to ‘im, “Sod off. T’would be eighteen month for graft to take if you sewed ‘em back on. And another eighteen months, because it would have gone bloody wrong. So I fed ‘em to ‘edgehogs”.’
Now, this is the British grit that won the war, and I wish more of us had it these days.
Not much long afterwards, Mystic Moon had a new engine plate installed and I had a large bill. But I was very happy as I took her on a short test run. The engine ran like silk, and I could change gear without the customary grinding sound. But, the rattley-whine still persisted.
‘Orf, the rattley-whine is still there,’ I said as I tied up on the outside of two boats in order to get fuel.
‘Well, it’s certainly not the engine plate. Probably something rubbing against something else, then,’ he bellowed helpfully from the wharf. ‘Won’t be serious. Have a look in your electric cupboard tonight when you tie up.’
I took him at his word, and set off up the Shroppie.
I did take a look in the electric cupboard, but I couldn’t find anything that was causing the
rattley-whine. But during the day it got alarmingly louder and increasingly high pitched. To make matter worse, when I tied up following my wondrous encounter with fairyland and opened up the engine flooring, I discovered the floor awash with water, and the water cooler leaking.
‘Orf!’, I whimpered into my mobile phone after punching in the marina’s phone number in panic. ‘Help. The boat’s full of water and the rattley-whine is worse.’
Orf didn’t miss a beat. ‘Does your bilge pump work?
‘Yes,’ I squeaked.
‘You won’t sink then. Phillip will be with you tomorrow.’
There’s something about being on the canals which makes you shrug your shoulders and think, ‘Oh, well.’ In fact, whether it’s a glorious sunny day, or you’ve broken down and it’s horribly expensive to put right, or there’s a queue at the locks, or it’s pouring with rain, virtually everyone I have met on my travels has learnt to accept what is happens in the moment with the same shrug.
I am so taken with this that I believe anyone who is stressed out, or is being confronted with one of life’s dramas needs to drop everything, climb aboard a narrrowboat and head off for a few days. It would save the NHS a fortune, and bankrupt drug companies. Being on a narrrowboat is also a tonic for relationships, because those on board have to work together.
It’s a good challenge, as well, for lone boaters like me. Each time I manage a lock on my own I have a huge sense of pride and accomplishment. It’s hard physical work, but I have developed a rhythm that makes them manageable and most enjoyable.
Trundling along for hours on end has also given me the time to reflect on all kinds of things that I have previously been too busy to do. I have particularly relished the opportunity to connect with my experience and understanding of God, and of course, my ageing process.
It is not unusual to have a calling to do this. In the Hindu culture, for example, it is expected that older people will spend their latter years devoted to their spiritual enlightenment. It is their way of preparing for the inevitability of death and to confront and release the karma they have accrued so they can reincarnate into a better life next time round.
As I have grown older I also understand why in medieval times many older people, especially women, chose to spend the rest of their lives in religious communities, immersed in quiet contemplation. This helped them to make peace with God as they readied themselves for death.
However, our western society, addicted to youth, beauty, and celebrity status does not encourage such spiritual exploration for those of us who are ageing. We just have to put up with the deep yearning for something more than what we own, which can leave us feeling empty, confused, or depressed.
So, this time on Mystic Moon is, indeed, a profound gift. I am also very pleased and encouraged to discover a charity called Conscious Ageing, set up by Dr Max Mackey-James to address some of these issues.
Thanks to Phillip, Mystic Moon is up and running again without the rattley-whine. That turned out to be something to do with the alternator. The leak was to do with a loose seal on the stuffing box on the propeller housing (yes, it really is called that), and the water cooler leak, a disconnected pipe. As soon as Phillip arrived I gave him a cup of tea and a biscuit. He looked at the biscuit and eyed me over his glasses. ‘Got any toast and honey?’ he said.
Nineteen locks later, I am now doubled up next to George and his boat Titan, on the delightful old world Audlem wharf. Caro and I met George on our way down the Kennet and Avon, and bless him, he’s mending my fridge, the television aerial, the tunnel light, and the horn. This is life on a narrrowboat.