Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said ‘Bother!’ and ‘O blow!” and also “Hang spring-cleaning!’ and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously …
From the opening chapter of Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
If you substitute email for Spring Cleaning and the keyboard for the brush then you understand my mood yesterday morning. A troubled overnight flight from Singapore followed by a rushed journey to Cardiff and little sleep saw me confronting a backlog of emails and other tasks Sunday morning that should have kept me tied to the keyboard all day. OK I was less rushed, I checked train times and took coat and camera, but in essence I left in haste and made the 1442 from Bedwyn with 30 seconds to spare at the cost of burning up several Sunday drivers on country lanes en route. Bedwyn is located on the Kennet and Avon Canal which connects the Bristol Channel with the River Thames. I went two stops down the line to Kintbury with the plan of walking back along the canal tow path.
Canal walks in the UK are unique. For a start the canals are narrow which gives them a sense of intimacy. Secondly the UK generally is hilly which means stretches of water are constantly interrupted by locks and the associated fascinations of the ingenuity of Victoria Engineers. Finally they have created their own human ecology comprising of weekend barge owners attempting to interest young children with winding gear; ecological activists living in canal boats with more solar panels than the average house, and the lonely fisherman; I’m not being sexist here they are men.
I realised on arrival at Kintbury that I was walking the wrong way round. Firstly, heading west meant walking into the setting sun which meant I was half blinded for the latter part of the trip. Mind you the lighting effects were dramatic (see left). Secondly there is a canal side pub at Kintbury but not at Bedwyn, given that I was starting after lunch this was an error. A couple of canoeists were starting off at the same time but I left them behind as lock succeed lock and they were forced into porterage. The canal side properties were spectacular, from Rectories that would have been (and properly were) a credit to Trollope, to converted watermills and warehouses. We tend to forget how important the canals were to the growth of industry in England, and every town had a wharf and the remnants of industrial activity in what are now rural market towns. The building of the London-Bristol railway in the mid nineteenth century line brought the Kennet and Avon Canal traffic to an end, although it was a graceful decline over seventy years.
You also see more recent artifacts. In the second world war, under threat of invasion, a series of defensive lines were set up in the south of England. One used the canal with a series of concrete pill boxes on the northern side. One of these is pictured in the photograph which opens this posting. I doubt they would have been that effective given that the canal is no wider than the average military pontoon and the pill boxes look like they would not survive a single grenade or artillery shell. Counter factuas aside, they stand in contrast with the rural environment they occupy. This is a land that has not been invaded since the 12th Century. OK there was a little local difficulty in the 17th century, especially just up the road at Newbury, but at its heart this is a land which has known peace for many centuries and it shows in the architecture and quite confidence of the English country lanes and hedgerows which have survived grubbing up better here than elsewhere.
My half way point was Hungerford which allowed me to pop into the co-op to buy and drink a quart of milk (I get mocked for this in all places via the Netherlands, but I drink milk in preference to soda). I organised my first ever software user conference here for MURCO (A stock forecasting and inventory management system) around which I built a small business in my pre-IBM days. We got a good rate in Hungerford, it was just after the massacre on the 17th August 1987. A lone gunman with a Type 56 assault rifle backed up by a a M1 Carbine and a Baretta 92 killed 17 people including himself and his mother and injured another 15. The legislative result was the banning of semi-automatic weapons from private ownership. It took the Dunblaine massacre the best part of a decade later (18 dead, 15 injured) to introduce a more comprehensive ban on weapons kept at home. Hungerford was and is now a small sleepy market town, but for a brief period its name was synonymous with horror. The Bear where we held the conference was one of the stopping points of WIlliam of Orange during the so called Glorious Revolution. I’m a Jacobite in respect of that period of history so I have to use italics!
The Wharf at Hungerford gives a sense of how busy the canal used to be, the the original meeting that gave rise to its construction took place there. I walked out slowly through the commons and marsh to the east and stopped to watch a barge navigate the lock. I had seen the same process earlier that day, but in a boat hired for day with a semi-experiened crew including two teenagers who failed to take the paternal instructions seriously; result much mayhem and time! My second encounter was two old men, obviously barge owners for many years who had a rhythm to the way then handled the paddles of the lock that was a delight to watch for its pure efficiency. &nbnbsp;
The human element was now starting to dominate over nature and the canal bank was full of fishermen. Now these are not the wild bass fisherman who wade out into the raging surf on the coast. These guys sit on the bank all day with 4 meter rods seeking to capture tiddlers. They sit huddled over the their rods in silent contemplation of something. I watched a set for half an hour and during that time one two inch perch was the net result. No one talked, but at the end of the day they packed up. I caught one of them from the rear, a massive heavy rucksack on his back and two rucksacks slung over his breast along with a carrier bag. He had a mile to walk and grimaced with every step. I’ve seen canal bank fishermen through out my life but have never understood the motivation. On the two occasions where I have plucked up the courage to ask, the monosyllabic grunt clearly indicated that anyone foolish enough to ask the question could not conceivably understand the answer. The grunt was accompanied by a plunge of a naked hand into a plastic pot of maggots at which point I beat a retreat.
Aside from realising how unfit I am, and also that knees are vulnerable to stress as one grows older if you don’t keep your weight down, the rest of the walk was uneventful. As twilight crept into my awareness nature started to reassert itself. Hares started in the nearby field, I briefly saw the rear end of a badger and an early Tawny Owl swept the bank looking for the odd errant water vole who might (to return to my opening theme) have spent too much time simply messing about in boats. That is the beauty of a canal walk, you have the water, the animals, the people and their artifacts, a unfurling story that carries time with it, into the situated present.
So to the next time. Start in Kintbury then walk through to Newbury or even Reading? Head West maybe via Bradford on Avon to the Bristol Channel? All linear routes connected by public transport, and for these weary knees, mainly on the flat.