Caught by the River

Frank on a Narrowboat (part one)

10th July 2009


by Frank Cottrell Boyce

Through a series of domestic misunderstandings I’m helping to crew narrowboat on the Leeds-Liverpool canal. The only previous experience I have of narrow boats is a miserable afternoon sheltering from the rain inside one at Ellesmere Port Boat Museum. I joined “Noah’s Barge” at Johnson’s Hillock – a series of locks arranged in a viciously tight u-bend like a canal Cresta Run. Steve is on board trying to wedge the sixty foot boat into a lock that seems to be about fifty feet long, while two kindly strangers set the gates. He only manages to keep them off the treacherous sill at the back by rocking it from side to side, so when I jump on board with my teenage daughter and her beau, we are greeted with a cascade of fruit and dry goods, like a bad night at the Glasgow Empire. When we’re through, I go to the back and say hello to Steve, who I’ve never met before. He’s brought the boat down from Barnoldswick and is taking it all the way to Liverpool. He greets me with tales of the Yorkshire reaches – of locks around Burnley that were so packed with rubbish that you couldn’t open the door; of the Foulbridge tunnel which is a mile long. You wait till the traffic lights let you in and then you have twenty mintues to clear it – like a hellish flume. It’s pitch dark except for the distant, slowly growing light at the end of the tunnel and the glow of your own headlight. It lights up the ceiling and the bottom in a perfect circle so that you have no sense of being in the water, but feel instead that you’re floating in a rose of light, being drawn towards the greater light. I said it sounded like a mystical experience. “It was terrifying. I was shaking when we came out.”
But for now it’s a straight run through woodland to Adlington, where we’ll spend the night. Steve shows me how to steer. A minor touch on the tiller produces a great sweeping motion sixty feet away at the prow, the boat seeming to pivot in the middle somewhere. It’s like trying to pilot a huge see-saw. It’s disorientating to discover that something moving at four miles an hour on a deserted waterway takes up your whole brain, in a way that driving a car at seventy on a busy motorway doesn’t. Every bridge that crosses the canal has a number. Those built after the canal have a number plus a letter. By the time we get to bridge 81, I’ve learnt to line up our headlight with the white splash that marks the centre of the bridge arc and slide under the bridge without slowing down too much. The force is with me. And my daughter’s boyfriend sees a kingfisher.
Steering is made slightly more complicated by the fact that we have inflatable giraffes sticking out of the windows and we don’t want to pop them on the brambles. The giraffes are there because “Noah’s Barge” is a travelling climate change campaign run by the Liverpool Archdiocese Justice and Peace group and by CAFOD. The idea is to run a series of events at various stops along the way. Which means that the barge has to run to timetable, and that from time to time I have to dress up in the Noah Costume.
Tonight we’re stopping at the White Bear Marina where a Catholic order – the Brothers of Charity – runs a centre for adults with learning difficulties, which has a cafe there. We tie up opposite the cafe, hand out our leaflets, eat chilli and invite people over to the barge. I’m strolling back over the bridge when I hear accordions and shouting. A morris dancing troupe from Leyland has turned up to support us. They’re called Stone the Crows and they’re dressed all in black, with huge black plumes in their hats and – disturbingly – blacked up faces. When they’re standing around in the car park, there’s a definite whiff of Royston Vaisey in the air. But when they dance they look more like some Native American shamans – their jackets and hats are decorated with feathers and they shriek like a war party when they dance. When they clash sticks, the sound is terrifying. They blag everyone into joining in their last dance. I dance opposite a woman whose startling blue eyes stare out from here black make-up and who whacks my stick so hard it nearly breaks my wrist. I feel like I’ve joined a cult. The chant “One of us, one of us, we accept her, one of us ….” runs through my sleep, syncopated by the whirr of ghostly kingfisher wings.

(to be continued….)