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  • djbowmansmith

Kennet and Avon Canal

Here’s a little something pre-covid about my first experience on a canal boat.

I have a windlass in my hand and I’m not entirely confident I know what to do with it.

Last night in pouring rain, Billy, one of the friendly staff at Foxhangers, gave me a brief lesson about locks when we collected the narrow boat. Last week I watched a vlog and read some instructions my husband handed me. But now, as I walk along the towpath to face my first lock, all I can really remember is an episode of Blue Peter from my youth featuring John Noakes and Shep.

Maybe this canal lark was not such a good idea.

‘Total madness boating just the two of you,’ we were told. Apparently, normal people do this with at least one other couple. The thought of travelling with friends makes me shudder at the best of times. Spending a week in a very confined space is something I can only achieve with my husband. So, against impassioned advice about attempting the many locks on the Kennet and Avon Canal with just one lock-winder – here I am. In the rain. With a windlass.

Seend Top Lock looks scenic even in the drizzle. Fields dotted with trees and cows sweep away on both sides. I can see the canal through the grey arch of bridge 152. And a swan.

The swan is sitting on the green grass next to the lock. Slowly, I approach the lock in order to give the swan plenty of time to get up and leave. The swan remains and eyes me suspiciously. I am sure there was a Blue Peter episode about how a swan could break your arm. I wonder if I should go back to the boat and explain we need to wait for the swan to go – because I’m a bit scared of him.

After a few clumsy moments, I get the windlass snuggly onto the spindle on the lock and begin to wind the paddle. This is not easy. The mechanism feels stiff but after a few turns I hear the welcome rush of water – I must be doing something right. Turning becomes easier and I get in a rhythm – little by little one paddle is raised. Now I must get to the other side of the lock and do the same there. Avoiding the swan, I take the long way round and walk over the road bridge and back down the other side, through another gate in what feels like someone’s back garden. Soon the next paddle is lifted and water is gushing, filling up the lock – levelling the water so Paul can bring the narrow boat through. I lean on the beam and hope. A click and a creak and like magic the beam begins to move. Bracing my feet on the protruding bricks on the ground I ease the gate open. I can hardly believe the feat of engineering that has enabled me to move something so massive. I’m still grinning about my achievement when I arrive, via the road bridge, on the other side.

Oh no. The swan.

As I push the beam, I expect him to move away, or break my arm! He is quite indifferent and simply ducks (sorry) when the beam passes over him. Paul steers in the narrow boat and the swan watches the rest of the slow proceedings with noble calm. When all is done and our little craft is gently easing its way along the cut, I look back at my first lock and do a mental check through that I have done everything correctly - closed the paddles and made sure the safety catch (pawl) is in place and that I haven’t left my windlass behind. The swan stands up, spreads his wings - to show how magnificent he is, and that yes, he really could break my arm if he wanted to. Instead, he settles himself with a ruffle and I fancy there is a small gleam of amusement in his beady eye.

The next lock is in sight. I head off along the towpath. By the time we have negotiated the five Seend locks we are feeling more confident and the sun is shining. At the last, another boat, the first we have seen on the move, is coming up. There is a little time to have a chat before we go our separate ways. These folk are live-a-boards and are taking their widebeam up the Caen Hill Flight this morning. I tell them there is a very big swan sitting by the Seend Top Lock.

‘That’s Larry,’ they say, ‘he likes to sit there when it rains.’ I wonder if he’ll be there on the way back.*

The work done, we take our ease and chug slowly along. Now that the sun is shining, the canal looks beautiful. Green trees reflected in the water. Tall, yellow irises and copper coloured bulrushes crowd the banks. There are baby ducks paddling frantically after their parents, swans (not that one) gliding by and delightful black fluffy moorhens pottering about among the reeds and stalks at the water’s edge. The white, angular stillness of a heron and sometimes, if you’re lucky, the blue-green flash of a kingfisher.

We moor up. This requires using a plank to get to land and hammering pins into the bank to tie the boat on. When the boat is secure, we make lunch and eat it sitting in the bow. Now and then a narrow boat will chug slowly by – apart from that there is no human noise – the peace is palpable and we know we’re hooked.

*He was.


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