Tuesday 14 September 2021

Canal Turn


I'm going to start with a bit of politics.  I know that's not why you come here - you come here because it's your lunch break and they won't let you look at porn on your work computer - but bear with me.  I came to the realisation, on my trip from Moor Street to Hatton, that Chiltern Railways is easily the most Tory of all the rail operating companies.  It goes from Moor Street, which is done out like the Good Old Days, to Marylebone, which is so posh it has a name that only upper class people can say properly.  It goes through Warwickshire and Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire, prime Home Counties, prime Tory areas.  Even when it passes through working class Birmingham, it skips inner city Small Heath and Tyseley so it can whizz on to fragrant Solihull with its wine bars and John Lewis.  

Meanwhile, until very recently, its corporate colours were red, white and blue.  Absolute Brexit.  I felt like graffitiing the windows with TAX THE RICH and CAPITALISM IS A DISEASE but I didn't because while I may be left-wing, I'm not awful.

Beyond Solihull, it skipped some more bits of the city before deigning to stop at rural Hatton, well away from the common oiks.  (West Midlands Trains also runs a limited service to Hatton, only in the peaks, and I hope they send their grimiest, dirtiest, stinkiest diesels to chug through and lower the house prices).  The station is a couple of platforms in the countryside, decorated in that corporate Union Jack, with a small row of railway cottages running alongside.  I left the platform just as a friendly pair of retirees waved goodbye to one of the residents, sending the bouncy labrador back into the house then getting in their 4x4 and driving off.  I skulked up the road, hovered under the station sign as usual, then headed for the canal towpath.

Now if I was a proper travel writer, one with a mission to entertain and inform, I'd have turned right at the bottom of the steps.  Hatton station is actually a fair way from the village itself, which considered the canal far more important to its history than the railway.  The Hatton Locks are a series of twenty-one locks raising the level of the Grand Union Canal, threading their way through the village and forming an important transport resource.  They were so notable that they were opened by the Duke of Kent.  A proper travel writer would immediately rush to see them, perhaps take a boat through a couple of the locks, almost certainly chat to a couple of extravagantly bewhiskered bargemen.

I am not a proper travel writer.  I turned left.  

The thing is, Lapworth station was to the left.  If I'd gone to the locks, it was a mile's walk, and then, when I was done, I'd have had to walk back the way I came.  I hate going back the way I came.  It's so dull.  I could have diverted inland for the return, of course, but that would've made the walk even longer, and I didn't particularly want to go there in the first place.  So I apologise if you came here for stories of amazing canal escapades.

The towpath was empty for the most part.  I encountered a single fisherman, his long rod almost extending the width of the canal, and we shared a polite nod of acknowledgement.  There were no boats after I left the yacht club at Hatton behind, just a stretch of long silent water until I reached the tunnel at Shrewley.  

The tunnel cuts through a hill, but there's no way for pedestrians to pass through it.  Instead I mounted the slope, already starting to sweat.  It was a sticky, abnormal day, the skies pregnant with rain, the air hinting at thunderstorms, and the steep clamber caused me to grunt and drip.  At the top it levelled out into an access road and I had my countryside fantasies ruined.  The M40 was less than four hundred metres away, completely invisible to me, but constantly present.  It was a roar, a relentless noise underpinning every step.  A canal and a railway are only noisy periodically; even on the busiest tube lines there are whole minutes of silence between trains.  A busy road is a single, unflinching rhythm, a stream of sound at all hours, varying from truck to motorbike to car so that it ebbs and flows and acts as a constant distraction.  I suppose you get used to it, but to me, it was like having a bee three inches from my ear the whole time.

I was deposited in Shrewley itself, a village strung along a single road.  I dodged the cars to cross and found a small To The Canal sign in the undergrowth, beside a house undergoing major refurbishment with a skip in the drive.  I paused.  Down there?

I'd expected the path back down to be similar to the one I'd just climbed; instead I was disappearing into the dark.  I walked forward to the mouth of the tunnel.  At first there were low, wide steps, then, after a half a dozen, they disappeared, and instead I was walking down smooth stones.  Raised bricks had been placed in them for you to wedge your feet against, but there was no handrail, nothing.  Water trickled down the sides.

Obviously I slipped; my body always aims for the lowest of low comedy.  I reached out to grab something, some kind of purchase, and punched my hand through a spider's web.  The rest of the walk down the slope was painfully slow, my hand tracing the side of the tunnel the whole time, while my mind idly wondered if I'd slide all the way to the bottom when I inevitably fell and cracked my skull open or if I'd simply lay sprawled in the darkness to be discovered by a dog walker eight hours later.

Soon I was out the other side, back in the daylight, back on the towpath.  Or what little towpath there was.  My right foot was perilously close to the edge the whole time.  I transferred my phone to my left pocket because I was worried it would get dislodged and plunge into the water.  Dammit, I thought, how did they ever expect to get a horse along a path this tight?  Then I realised, actually, they didn't.

In my mind, the canals basically stopped existing the minute the Liverpool to Manchester railway opened in 1830.  Why would you use a slow, tortuous, highly-engineered canal when you had the option of a fast railway instead?  Of course, it wasn't like that at all; canals continued to be used as a means of transportation for decades afterwards.  But the railways were the nail in the coffin and then, a while later, the motor car came along and hammered in another.

By the 1920s, the canals were on their knees, and they needed to find some way to attract traffic.  Two big canal companies, the Regent's and the Grand Junction, amalgamated, and began upgrading the route between London and Birmingham.  It was an incredibly expensive undertaking with the intention of making the narrow waterways much wider to accommodate two way traffic plus larger vessels, while the depth was increased so that heavier cargoes could be carried.  The aforementioned Duke of Kent turned up to open the new route in 1934.  

Yep, you read that right: 1934.  To put that in perspective, the Queensway Tunnel opened under the Mersey the same year.  The Grand Union was putting its money in canals at a time when you could get on a plane and travel across Europe.  And then, of course, the Second World War promptly arrived and decimated the economy.  In 1948 the Labour government nationalised the canals along with the railways and I imagine there were a lot of shareholders who were frankly relieved to have the burden taken off them.

The Grand Union is a beautiful walk; I was enjoying it thoroughly.  But it was inconceivable to me that people, even people a hundred years ago with a lot of money tied up in the canal network, believed there was any future in it as a serious mode of transportation when trains and lorries also existed.  According to this website it takes nine days to get from London to Birmingham, and that's in 2021, with modern, well-maintained boats.  Throwing millions of pounds at something that is already obsolete seems like the grandest of follies.

As I rounded the corner, I encountered my first canal boat.  There had been a couple moored up but this was the first one that was actually on the move.  It was then that I realised two things:

    (a) a canal boat moves quite slowly, but not slowly enough, and;
    (b) I walk quite quickly, but not quickly enough.

It meant that I was walking at more or less the same pace as the canal boat.  This was obviously unacceptable.  I didn't want to be staring at that man for the three miles to Lapworth.  Similarly, I'm sure he didn't want to have me watching him.  Neither of us wanted to slow down, though; we had places to be.  It was an impasse.

Fortunately, a second boat appeared, coming in the opposite direction.  The man on the barge slowed his boat down so they could pass one another under a bridge and I moved into turbo mode.  Obviously, I walk fast, because I am a homosexual (I always liked Trixie Mattel's explanation for why gays walk so fast; we all have Womanizer by Britney Spears playing inside our head and are matching the beat) but this would take a concerted effort.  I pounded that towpath, really hammering it, a sort of ultra mince that got me past the boat and round the corner and distant enough that I could slow down and relax again.  I'd put the narrowboat behind me and now I wouldn't have a shadow for the rest of the walk.

The path darkened as I walked through woodland.  There was no motorway noise here, just the sound of birds.  I have absolutely no talent for learning birdsong, so I couldn't tell you what they were.  They were somewhere in among the trees.  The bridges that crossed the canal now were small, local roads, farm tracks.  Further along a man was moored at the bank and washing the roof of his boat.  "Looks like it's going to rain," he said to me.

"I hope so," I replied.  "I need cooling down!"  The ultra mince had turned me into a soaking wet, sweaty mess.  My t-shirt clung to me and my hair was tight against my forehead.  Drops ran down my neck and face.  I considered taking my top off, since there was hardly anyone about.  I was afraid of being seen, though.  I imagined my pale fleshy form being half-glimpsed through the trees and becoming a terrifying urban legend.  The White Beast of Warwickshire.  The Towpath Blob.  The Grand Union Horror.  I kept the shirt on.

Fortunately, the rain began to fall.  Just mildly at first, then harder and heavier, long driving pounding drops.  It was delightful.  I was rinsed with it, wiping away the salty sweat from my lips, splattering against my glasses.  I paused to wipe them down then pushed on.  It was still warm so I left my jacket in my backpack, a look that raised eyebrows in a group of walkers coming the other way in full human condom ponchos.  Lightweights.  There was another walker though, a man wearing the same as me - t-shirt, shorts, sturdy boots - and we nodded in recognition at a fellow traveller.  I wondered if he was doing Lapworth to Hatton, if somewhere there's this exact blog, but in reverse.

Tom O' The Wood was a tiny hamlet with a tempting pub and more boats moored.  By the bridge there was an information board about the women of the canals, and a post with a speaker and a hand crank to hear their stories.  I gave it a spin but all I heard was a crackle, like a record player nobody cleaned, so I ducked under the bridge and carried on.  Across the way a man leapt from his barge onto the bank, a power tool in hand.  You're constantly fighting the water in the boats.  It always wants to invade your dry spaces and so it's a constant process of renewal to keep it out.  By now the houseboats and their cargoes were familiar to me, the wheelbarrow and bike on the roof, the little selection of plants, the brief glimpse of a tidy kitchenette.  There were two men pulling a boat in, tying it up with ropes, and when I passed the back window I saw their wives inside making tea.  The canals make men men again and the women are there for supplies.  

I could never live on a canal boat myself.  I see the appeal of travelling around, of following a mood, but I'm too afraid.  I'd be scared to leave my boat unattended, a box with all my possessions that could be damaged or destroyed so easily.  It felt so fragile.  

A finger post at the side of the canal showed me a side route, the point where the Stratford Canal touched up against the Grand Union.  I clambered over the bridge - the rain had made the cobbles particularly hazardous and I descended like a man trying on eight inch heels for the first time - and saw that I was almost at my destination.  I ducked under a bridge and made myself look presentable.  A wipe down with a tissue, a change of t-shirt, a spray of deodorant and aftershave.  The troll that re-emerged was maybe not entirely transformed but he was human enough to get served in the Navigation Inn.

The orange juice was to rehydrate me; the beer was to enjoy.  I sat in the garden, cooling off, under a tented roof and connected to the wifi (one bar of 3G - what sort of a hellhole was this?).  Across from me there was a pair of retirees, where she talked a lot more than he did, explaining all the local attractions and why exactly she hadn't visited them.  There was a boisterous group of middle-aged women further out, enjoying a pub lunch, and two grey haired men in lycra carrying cycle helmets.  One came out with the beer and when he suggested they take a seat further out in the garden the other one said "lead on sir" so I immediately hated him.  I relaxed.

After an hour or so I'd finished my drinks and so I lazily picked myself up and headed into the village.  The station is called Lapworth, but the village is Kingswood; there was already a Kingswood station down south though so they renamed this one after the parish rather than the locality.  It was a neat, moneyed village, with new prestige developments slotted in seamlessly and a village shop and a garage and an off-licence.  The village noticeboard advertised a talk on the local history and a male voice choir and held slightly damp bus timetables.

I went past the primary school and a mobile library with a badly painted picture of Antony and Cleopatra on the side - I have a feeling I'm going to be seeing a lot of Shakespeare tie-ins throughout Warwickshire - and then there was the station, tucked to one side.  This was, incidentally, on Station Lane.  You don't get many Station Lanes.  Station Road, yes, but Lane is countrysidey, Olde Worlde, and not very modern thrusting railway.  

It was also decorated in the red white and blue of Chiltern Railways, and seemed to be of some interest to a train nerd.  On the platform was a boy with a huge camera on a tripod; he loitered in a slightly anticipatory way.  I guessed that there was a train passing through soon, a freight or something, and that I might possibly turn up in the back of a shot on a YouTube video somewhere.

I deposited myself on the bench and ate my lunch, a chicken wrap I'd bought the day before and stashed in a Tupperware.  The rain had stopped and the afternoon was waning.  I'd sliced off a corner of the map here.  After the grimy industrial world of my first post-pandemic trip I'd wanted something with a bit of natural beauty, a bit of a walk, a bit of a change.  Hatton to Lapworth had been worth it.