England by Canoe

Imagine paddling your canoe through a Constable landscape.

The start of a canoe trip is always a magic moment, but I can remember none more full of promise than that precarious July launching in the Thames above Oxford. Precarious because neither my wife (the better half of many a voyage) nor I felt at home in our tippy, well-laden sixteen-footer; we hardly dared wave back to the Oxford don and his wife, so helpful in getting us off, so sure that we were going to capsize. The heavy wooden canoe was strange. So, in fact, was the whole idea.

One associates a canoe with the wilderness, with escape from man and the man-made. This time we sought the opposite. Like anyone who has traveled in Britain, we’d had provocative glimpses of its vast network of old canals, of those long gaily painted boats laden with coal or converted for holiday cruising. Obviously a canoe could go wherever a “narrowboat” could, and many places where it couldn’t. We had chosen the West Country, the loveliest part of middle England, where the Oxford Canal and the River Avon border the Cotswold Hills.

Port Meadow, the ancient Oxford town common, was dotted with black and white Holsteins and little brown ponies; the spires of the university receded in the background. On the opposite bank a row of huge poplars lined the towpath. A pair of swans shepherded five mouse-gray cygnets, one parent at each end of the long line. A heron, close cousin to the Great Blues of our native Concord River, rose lazily from the shallows, and we heard the sound of a skylark. We should have put it on tape; we were to have no more lark weather for ten days.

Early that morning, my wife had remarked happily to the chambermaid at the Mitre on the pretty day. “Well, yes, it does look nice now, mum.” She knew. We had set out between showers; now they were closing ranks to produce a steady downpour. (All our best trips start in the rain.) Above King’s Lock, whose brilliant flower beds are the pride of the loekkeeper’s wife, we turned off into a narrow passage through the reeds known appropriately as Duke’s Cut. Instantly the broad, civilized Thames vanished. We felt shut in and strangely remote, and for a moment were back in that winding channel through the reeds in an Ontario lake, where on our first wilderness trip we almost got lost before we began. Today the route was clear; instead of a beaver dam and a faint blaze on a tree, we came to a narrow, untended lock (the first of scores we were to operate by ourselves) and a neat sign reading “Oxford Canal.”

Duke’s Cut is named for the Duke of Marlborough, but it might well commemorate another duke whose enterprise, coupled with the genius of an engineer, two centuries ago changed the face of England. In 1759 Parliament passed “An Act to enable the most Noble Francis Duke of Bridgewater, to make a navigable Cut or Canal” from his coalpits at Worsley to Manchester. A woman, as usual, was indirectly responsible. Disappointed in love, the Duke had deserted London society to apply his vast fortune to the wild scheme of canal building. Luckily, through such men as Josiah Wedgwood of pottery fame, he met a brilliant engineer named James Brindley. Together they persisted in the face of doubt and ridicule and of appalling construction problems — tunnels and embankments and aqueducts — and within two years of the passage of the Act, the first boatload of coal was towed through the completed canal. It had been proved possible, and the canal-building boom was on.

Thus in the midlands was woven that web of water that would draw together and nourish the infant industries of Britain. Obviously one of the first necessities was an umbilical cord joining the midland cities — Manchester, Birmingham, Coventry — with the Thames. So, happily for idle boatmen like ourselves, the Oxford Canal is one of the oldest and by the same token most beautiful. Its embankments are faced with the sandstone that is the glory of Cotswold villages. It does not, unlike many later canals, run straight and dull between big cities, but like a placid river follows the winding contours of the land.

Now as we left Duke’s Cut and headed north on the canal proper, we knew only vaguely what lay ahead, but we had the essential equipment for a holiday excursion: good maps and few commitments. At the Map House on London’s St. James’s Street, I had bought the appropriate ordnance maps, known to every reader of English murder mysteries (you’ll find one in the glove pocket of the Bentley) and surely the finest of their sort in the world.

Scaled one inch to the mile, they show every hill and valley, every road and footpath, every river and canal, lock and weir, and —so essential to our purpose — almost every pub. Luggage was simple: a five-by-seven tent, food for the first few days, bottled gas for cooking, a few semi-respectable garments for big town stops, raincoats, rain hats, and a rubber sheet over all. By wilderness standards, where every ounce counts and you take it with you or do without, our load was heavy and disorganized. And our plans were amply vague. Like the early canal builders, who respected the contours of the land, we asked only for freedom to follow the contours of the day.

Before leaving Oxford we had obtained from the office of the British Waterways a travel permit for “canoe—with use of locks.” It’s one thing to be permitted the use of a lock, and another to use one. But we soon caught on to the drill. Where the canal is climbing, it goes like this (with my wife in the stern and me on land): Shut top gates, crank up bottom “paddles” or sluices (to lower the water level in the lock), open bottom gates, canoe enters lock, shut bottom gates, drop bottom paddles, raise top paddles, wait four or five minutes for the lock to fill (this was my favorite part), open top gates, jump back in, and you’re off. The paddles are cranked up with a “windlass,” a tool like a tire wrench which is issued with the travel permit; the gates are operated with simple leg power applied to the end of a massive wooden sweep that balances the gate itself. The canoer’s-eye view of this routine is rather dramatic: the entry into a long, narrow, watery grave with dripping, moss-covered walls rising two stories above you; your view limited to an oblong patch of sky; the heavy thud behind you as the gates close; the wild rush of water as the top paddles are raised; the slow levitation into the light; the new landscape at your resurrection.

We soon found that a canal, like a river, will take you places you will never see from a highway, and that a canal is even better than a river because your eye is level with, or even above, the country. In either case you are not merely an observer speeding by. Sometimes you can be a source of information. The maintenance man clearing the towpath rests for a moment on his scythe: “Did you see the Water Rat below the bridge at Twyford?” A boat, unlike a car, is part of the landscape (some canal boats are bright additions to it) and a tent is a home if only for a night. You meet the farmer on whose land you camp. (You’d jolly well better; the one time we failed to, he appeared with a gun at half-cock.) Your tent pegs give you the feel of the local topsoil; your reception, the feel of the man. We found that there is no one more hospitable than the English countryman — or countrywoman — if you take your time and give him a chance to make the generous gesture.

Never on setting out in the morning did we know where we should sleep that night. The first week’s lodgings went like this: 1) “bed and breakfast” in a canalside cottage, the bed just vacated by the son of the family, who works nights; 2) under a bridge along the towpath; 3) a tent in a mowing; 4) a guesthouse in Banbury; 5) a sheep pasture; 6) a pig farm; 7) the Crown Hotel in Warwick. Of these, the bridge was the one least likely to be listed by Duncan Hines.

“The law,” said Anatole France, “in its majestic equality forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges.” If a law exists in England against sleeping under canal bridges, I am confident that there are few second offenders. Aesthetically the bridges on the Oxford Canal are superb: stout but graceful arches of weathered stone or brick, no two quite alike, varied occasionally by a tiny wooden drawbridge of Brindley’s original design. They are merely crossings between pastures for sheep and cattle. The bright yellow lichens growing on the inner walls might have warned us that a stone bridge makes a damp bed.

But tonight, in rain too heavy for unpacking the tent, we chose the only sheltered spot in sight: the shelf where the towpath went under a bridge, eight or nine feet of level ground between the inner wall and the water’s edge. Bats flitted in and out as we cooked supper. A curlew wheeled and dipped, with wild cries. “ ‘Tis the place, and all around it, as of old, the curlews call.”Our bridge was no Locksley Hall. By dawn we knew that unless we were to grow lichens ourselves we would somehow manage henceforth to sleep under a roof— be it cotton, thatch, or tile.

I said that we didn’t make plans, but I take it back. On our ordnance maps we learned to search for the letters “PH” where the line of a road crosses the blue ribbon of the canal. The principal use of my watch was to strike a “PH” within the midday business hours of twelve to two. (The English countryman, of course, has a built-in chronometer which brings him automatically to the threshold of the nearest public house at the stroke of noon.) A country pub is more than a bar, it is a state of mind and a nourishment to the soul. It is a club without dues, a community center without committees. Here old friends meet daily, but strangers are welcome. Our canoe was a sort of guest membership card to the club. “Fancy you two flying all the way from America to do a trip on our canals!”

Nowhere did we get a warmer welcome than at the George and Dragon near Fenny Compton. Here we left the canoe at the pub while we thumbed a ride in a fish lorry (the buses being on strike) to the nearest town for supplies; and here it was that the proprietor forced upon me his treasured copy of Rolt’s The Inland Waterways of England, with an autographed picture of the famous Joseph Skinner of The Friendship, reputedly the last narrowboatman in Britain to be using a mule. Two days later, while I was sketching beside the canal, my wife called out. A mule was coming round the bend. And so we met Mr. Skinner and his wife, and in a moment had traveled back two centuries. As they worked The Friendship through a lock, he fed a pan of oats to the thirty-year-old mule, and we admired Mrs. Skinner’s gleaming brasswork in their snug cabin behind the load of coal.

Their vessel had changed little in design since the Duke of Bridgewater’s day. Owing to restrictions of the narrow-gauge canal locks, the dimensions of a narrowboat are as fixed as the dimensions of a sonnet. Cargo-space most of its length, cabin in the stern, it is approximately seventy feet long and seven wide. One boat fills a small lock; two abreast, a large one. The diesel engine has generally replaced the horse or mule, and two boats frequently work in tandem, the power boat towing the “butty.” But not all is utility. The pride of “the gaffer and his missus” (he steering the power boat and she the butty) is the rich painting on stem and stern and cabin, the decorated waterpot and stool, the polished brass and lacework within. The traditional painting motifs — roses and diamonds and castles with mosque-like turrets — probably originated with the gypsies. It is a pleasant shock to meet a load of coal in such gay dress, as if one were to encounter a mural instead of a number on the side of a Northern Pacific boxcar. And pleasant to find canals still in commercial use.

Between Banbury and Fenny Compton the canal had climbed in twelve giant steps to “the summit” at Clayton Top Lock, on a level with the tip of Banbury church steeple. Then came eleven enchanted miles of lockless paddling. “Remote, circuitous, utterly peaceful,” Robert Aickman, founder of the Inland Waterways Association, describes it. “ Wormleighton and Marston Doles: they are the places in which to forget the modern world. You see a farmhouse; then half an hour later you see it again, equally near or far, but in the opposite direction.” The pastures, with their flocks of sheep and fat dairy cattle, are bounded by dense thorn hedges, teeming with tits and wrens and countless other birds that find them perfect cover. The farmers measure distance in terms of fields: “You’ll find a spot for your tent three fields on.” It is a gentle land. Old — but age alone does not bring serenity to a countryside.

In the Western Hemisphere, the land that isn’t still virgin is likely to have been ravished. In England nature has apparently never been something to be conquered. On an island too small for wasteful dalliance, the farmer learned ages ago to love and to cherish the land with which he lives.

Entering the Grand Union from the Oxford Canal is like entering a highway from a country road, the impression heightened by a huge “road sign” at the junction. As we turned west toward Warwick, we met a stiff headwind and decided to play the mule. Attaching forty feet of light rope to the bow, one of us walked the towpath while the other steered. For the one it was like flying a kite, for the other like sailing.

By mid-afternoon we were sailstriding through the factory district of Leamington, with appropriate comment from the local urchins; in another hour we had arrived, tired and bedless as usual, in Warwick. What appeared like a waterside tearoom, with bright painted doors and flower boxes along the embankment, turned out, in characteristic English fashion, to be a coal wharf. And quite characteristically the manager emerged from his office to see what he could do for us. In a matter of moments our ship had a safe berth and we had a soft bed in a hotel, and before we left town three days later we had several new friends.

As it approaches Warwick, the Grand Union Canal crosses the river Avon on a massive stone aqueduct. There is no official connection between the two waterways. But we were able, by snubbing our long rope around a tree, to line the canoe down the steep and slippery incline into the river. The previous afternoon we had scouted our route from a window of the Great Hall of Warwick Castle, quietly discussing currents and portages in the river directly below us as the guide pointed out the ancient armor and the headsman’s ax. Now we slipped beneath the chains designed to thwart larger craft and returned the salutes of the tourists hundreds of feet above us in the same window. I doubt that there is a better way to sense the sheer mass of a medieval fortress than to glide beneath its walls in a tiny open boat.

Man made the canals but God made the rivers, and even the welltamed Avon showed the difference. The neat towpath was replaced by ragged banks and great overhanging trees; patches of reeds higher than your head reduced the channel in many places to a narrow corkscrew. Families of moor hens, the downy young like tiny dark chicks, skedaddled before us in alarm; mallards rose like rockets; wood pigeons flapped heavily from the oaks. Instead of dead water between locks, a lively current carried us along, broken only by the weirs at old mill sites, where we had to portage or slither barefoot down the slippery stone.

River travel has no sharp edges; scene flows into scene. The little spotted fawn in the deer park of Charlecote House, startled, as it nurses its mother, by the strange object drifting through the nursery. The gristmill with its huge water wheel slowly turning; within, the grinding roar of the millstones, the open sacks of tawny flour, soft to the touch. The golden, gently sloping fields of wheat and barley, the rich green pastures, the red Hereford bullocks, the black-faced sheep.

The idyl was rudely interrupted at Stratford. Here the Avon, lined with caravan (trailer) camps and public baths, is as quiet on a summer afternoon as a logging river in a spring freshet, with excursion boats forcing passage through a jackstraw tangle of mismanaged skiffs and weaving punts, none having any apparent relationship to the Bard.

Below Evesham the Avon becomes broader and deeper, and thereby hangs a heartening tale. Don’t forget — as if you could! — the name of Wyre Piddle. Here in an old mill we found the riparian headquarters of the Lower Avon Navigation Trust, an amazing organization of boating enthusiasts who are repairing the locks and, stretch by stretch, making the Avon once more a truly navigable river. Their membership, we learned at the club bar that night, includes practically every occupation except parson and undertaker.

From the Wyre Mill Club to Tewkesbury, where the Avon flows into the Severn, was one long day’s run, perhaps fifteen miles, with three locks and two thunderstorms. By late afternoon we were standing beneath the great Norman arches of the Abbey, and by evening we were having a beer at the historic Bear, with the principal narrowboatman in the midlands. He offered to take us on down the Severn, an

unexpected extra dividend to a trip that we thought was over. Farewell to the Avon, farewell to our canoe. From here it would go back to Oxford by rail. Next morning I paddled it to Shakespeare’s Boatyard, and left it for shipping in the competent hands of Mr. William Shakespeare.

An hour later we were basking in the bow of a silently gliding narrowboat, blessedly inert after those weeks of hard paddling and lock tending. Surely this was the crowning hospitality in our planless progress. While the Mercury went slowly through the Gloucester docks, we slipped off to visit the great cathedral, then rejoined her for the trip down the Gloucester and Berkeley Canal. An attractive but businesslike waterway, it is as straight as the Oxford Canal is tortuous, handmaiden not to the hills but to the sea. Countless old “swing bridges” opened before us; as the afternoon wore on we met heavy-laden seagoing tankers, their decks almost awash. The salt in the air and the gulls perched on the posts along the towpath showed us that we were approaching the Bristol Channel. Westward we could see the broad reaches of the Severn Estuary. Our trip was almost over. But as we sat in the sun plotting future voyages — longer ones perhaps, in longer, dryer boats — we knew that our concern with the canals had barely begun. We had traveled only a tiny fraction of the inland waterways, but already far enough to know that they lead straight to the heart of England.