September 14th 2016
After several hours on the cussed M6 I spent a beautifully hot August day at Hillmorton Locks in the excellent company of volunteer lock keepers Kevin and Taryn.
The Hillmorton locks HQ sits before the old lock keeper’s cottage and faces a narrow set of double locks. It is the busiest in the country which can lead to a certain amount of boat rage, I’m sure, but that day people were relaxed and friendly without exception – I chatted to boaters from Sweden, Germany, Australia. It’s easy, I think, to get lulled into a false sense of security by the gentle pace, the puttering engines and bucolic splendour. As we watched a boy teetering on the roof of his parents’ boat, Taryn recommended this absolutely harrowing YouTube clip of a narrowboat sinking in 20 seconds:
I agreed that it should be a required viewing, maybe texted directly to anyone who rents a boat as part of the welcome package.
The day passed quickly. I learned a lot more about the sub-aqua operations of the lock, had to be reminded several times about the safety catch on the… windy bit. I kept the windlass in my hand at all times. I quoted some Vogon poetry. Kevin told me a chilling story about his former headmaster taking students to a chewing gum factory to put them off using it; it was very effective. 48 boats passed in total (the record is 120), some of them day-trippers who had never opened a lock before, hence in need of instruction/assistance. I said, ‘It’s my first day,’ a lot. I remember I used to say that at the hotel I worked in, like an English version of Manuel, even when I’d been working there for two years. ‘Here’s your pint of foam. Oh, I’ve dropped a baked potato on your shoulder. It’s my… first day?’ The tips were great.
A committed couple of swans were nesting about a hundred yards away, and next to them a single male swan who just hung around jealously. Occasionally they chased him, just to rub it in. Taryn suggested that he wasn’t putting himself out there enough, but supposed that there was no swan version of Tinder. I think I went into an overlong bit about a swan pecking left or right on a smartphone; the joke was already finished, really.
Another key role of the volunteers is water conservation: there are so many boats coming from either direction that even with two locks it could easily turn into a circus of constant filling and emptying, rather than allowing a boat from one side to enter the empty lock once the boat from the other side has passed through. I’m not explaining that very well. You had to be there. If there’s a drastic change in the water level it potentially means someone has run into trouble further up the canal. They’ve accidentally let all the water out of it or something. I’d be a total liability if I was left to my own devices on a narrowboat, so it was odd to be in a position of authority conveyed by my quite unearned Canal and River Trust life-jacket.
The first couple of times you open a lock gate you’re all smug that you haven’t hurt anyone, that you’ve been of use in some tangible way (a rare enough feeling as a poet), that you’re partaking in this ancient marvel of engineering and that it wasn’t even that tiring. But like holding a bag of flour in the palm of your outstretched hand, you’re soon brought to the inescapable conclusion that you’re fairly out of shape. Halfway through the day I required frequent Twitter and vaping breaks.
The juxtaposition of immaculate, lovingly restored boats and gritty, functional, equally beloved boats is one I’ve come to enjoy. A giant, friendly/scary man occupied one of the latter. I swear the cabin was a train carriage. Some young American women had bought him beer. They were pathologists and talked mostly about autopsies.
There’s a café/bar here which is just perfect and I wished I was staying over. The English breakfast was transfiguring. You know when the tomatoes have the black griddle lines on them, but they’re still cooked all the way through so the tomato just explodes when you bite it? You can always judge by the tomato.
Anyway, I wrote this poem about the experience and it’s still a work in progress, but so’s everything, really.
for Kevin and Taryn
A mechanism I am yet to understand,
but wind and push and mimic
the contraflow, the reading of the depths.
Hello. A cheerful, solemn duty.
To differentiate from its namesake
we say a pair of compasses, like trousers;
the lockgates make you part of their machine,
the boat a bubble in a spirit level.
Prepare the quarter circle you describe.
The smell of lighter cubes and sunblock,
hollow knock of crack willow.
Dayboats return with a cargo of sunburn,
we turn and turn the windlass.
when a boy balances on the roof,
stamps as the corner hoves into view, I think:
how quickly we presume the safety-catch,
how we might leave it off this once,
how one day we might run aground or sink
without a wave or nod or how are you?
The soul’s maintenance we hardly notice,
with each small act of generosity.