May 27th 2016
I had the good fortune of being invited onto the Kennet Barge for a day. Essentially a floating museum, the Kennet is one of the only working boats of its kind. One of two, I think. It’s much longer and broader than a narrowboat. In celebration of the Leeds- Liverpool Canal’s Bicentenary it’s travelling the complete route with a crew of volunteers, recreating the 1st passage and formal opening of the Leeds & Liverpool Canal 200 years ago. Pretty sweet. Anyway, my own brief sojourn on the voyage was to be 6-8 hours on a Friday 13th between Skipton and Barnoldswick. No poem this month as I’m still distilling the experience into verse for the Leeds Liverpool Biennial.
Skipton is a beautiful town below the Yorkshire Dales. Once you’re off the M6 it’s all drystone walls, sublime hills and forests without a soul to be seen, screeching down from 100mph for a cattle grid, that sort of thing. The Kennet was setting off at 8am Friday morning which meant I needed to stay over, which meant, like many young parents with an evening’s shore leave, I had a thirst tempered only by the fact that I needed to be at least 50% operational the next day. Unfortunately Skipton has many glorious pubs, some truly delicious local beers and a handful of micro-pubs, which are roughly the size of a living room and serve even better beer.
Given all this I was proud of myself for only slightly over-indulging and, by 10pm in The Beer Engine, I had finished the penultimate chapter of Under The Volcano and was about to pack my satchel and waddle back to the B&B. I was, in fact, in the process of tucking my chair under the table when a man entered the room and announced that he was a lonely millionaire and wanted to buy everyone in the bar a drink. Two of the fourteen patrons stood and walked out immediately. The rest of us made excuses: it was a school night; his largesse, well-intentioned to be sure, was nonetheless somehow off-putting; winter is coming. I sat down and pretended to read again. The millionaire looked at his feet and said that he had never cleared a bar so quickly. And, well, I’m not made of stone. Come on, millionaire, I said. Take a seat. Buy me a drink.
By 1am I was on first name terms with everyone else who had taken pity on the millionaire, I had talked solely about religion and politics, I had wept openly, I had been told, by the millionaire, that I was like Hugh Grant but with big red ears (weeping not connected). I hugged everyone. I promised not to tell anyone in the south how lovely it is in Yorkshire.
I woke at 6am in my room with crooked hair, the taste of rubbing alcohol on my tongue and a headache which seemed to emanate from some distant, evil, desolate planet which had somehow locked onto orbiting me and me alone. My own voice went round and round my auditory centre like a foghorn. I stared at myself in the mirror and shook my head. Last night you were Hugh Grant with big red ears. Look at you now. It is this, I posit, which led me to forego the jeans and Hemingway jumper in my rucksack and to turn up at the basin wearing a suit jacket and button-down shirt, looking every inch the oblivious, ill-equipped poet I am. The captain folded his arms and said, ‘You’ll probably get a bit cold.’ I was fashioned with a fleece and waterproof from a small wardrobe, possibly the bequest of previous writers in residence.
The six-strong crew are either gentle, good-humoured souls in general or sensed that I was fragile and treated me with more respect than is my due. When they said, ‘You can put that in your poem,’ it was – and this is rare – good advice which I have mostly ended up taking. Harry and Ken, the senior members of the crew, told me that they used to play on the working barges as boys, jumping from the towpath to the deck, helping with small jobs. ‘We’re the closest they have to working bargemen now.’
Turns out a day on a boat is a remarkably good hangover cure. The wind in your hair, the relative isolation, the thrum of the engine vibrating through your bones. Also constant cups of tea and a tin of biscuits which contained, I’m not kidding, numerous sliced up chocolate bars. They keep a good tin. The scenery between Skipton and Barnoldswick is, the captain informed me, among the best on the whole Leeds-Liverpool canal.
See? You probably feel less hungover just looking at these photos, right?
There are 4 swing bridges and 14 lock gates between Skipton and the Greenberfield mooring.
I learned about the gates themselves, that they are held closed purely by the angle of the wood and the weight of water (80,000 gallons of the stuff). I learned about the role of the lock-keeper; that their job was to look after and maintain the gate, the single gate their lovely house is next to. ‘And he’d come out and help open the gates?’ I asked. ‘Well… If he felt like it.’ At the risk of speaking out of turn, this strikes me as a pretty cushy job.
MONDAY: Watch boats
TUESDAY: Watch boats. Wave.
WEDNESDAY: Head to Wickes for some Ronseal. Wave at boats.
THURSDAY: Assess gate. It’s fine.
FRIDAY: Think about helping bargeman opening gate. He seems fine. Wave.
A lock-keepers cottage in London probably goes for around £3million these days. I gradually got the hang of the process of opening the gates. Given the crew there tended to be four of us to a lock, so I merely had to mirror what the more experienced fellow was doing on the other side of the water. Nonetheless it took me some time to perfect my technique.
Poets are notorious for our lack of upper body strength, but mercifully having two children under the age of five has involved a fairly constant regimen of piggy backs, shoulder carries and sudden rescues, temporarily saving me from the donnish indolence and muscle wastage which is my fate. Also, once all the doo-hickeys are unfastened, you can operate a lock gate by pushing your bum against it, which is not dissimilar to a really hard sit down while you try to write a good metaphor. That said, there are 14 locks between Skipton and Barnoldswick and the six in the middle occur in rapid succession. This was both useful in terms of consolidating my learning (so that bit goes on there, so that’s the bit I don’t let go of in case it flies up and knocks out my teeth, etc.) as well as gradually requiring exertion beyond my usual habits.
The roar of the water as it filled the lock was a balm, and it was a delight seeing a boat the size and weight of the Kennet (imagining the same when it was loaded with 40 tonnes of coal) bobbing up to the level of the next stretch of water, all in about five minutes.
The Kennet was built for the Leeds Liverpool canal and not an inch was wasted: it’s more or less the width and length of a lock and therefore a terrifying ordeal (or would have been had I been entrusted with the task) taking it into a lock without damaging the boat, or the gates, or the walls. Between locks I gazed at the horizon and filled several pages with notes. Poem to follow.