Northampton, 12-13 May 2018

Viv leaves on Monday after Jenny arrives on Sunday. Together the three of us will do the 17 locks from Northampton to Gayton Junction, leaving the River Nene, or Nen as it’s pronounced around here, and entering the canal system.

It’s weird to think that there’s so much waterway activity going on that the road map has no way of showing, as people speed past on the M1. Your reality is how it’s framed, so often.

My uncle Bill died in Australia last year, very suddenly. He’d been a real character, who, with Jenny, had developed a property at Stonehaven, outside Geelong. Here’s Jenny, last year, and the house they built together.

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– and Bill loved boats. So when I was there for his funeral, and already planning this trip, Jenny agreed to join me for a couple of weeks. We don’t know each other very well, but we’re not so far apart in age terms. My mother Elizabeth, or Pix as she was called, (RIP, 2005) was born in 1938, just before the war, and her siblings came after it, when my grandfather returned to Australia – Judy, Bill and Anne, all born within five years. Pix married Hubert, my father, young and had me when she was 21, so I was only 12 years younger than Bill.

Jenny knows a lot about water – it’s been her profession – so it’ll be interesting hearing her reflections on the waterways of England. She’s never been on a narrowboat before, so I’m glad Viv is with us for Monday to share the locks with us both. We’ve worked out a division of responsibility – I’ve minded what the boat is doing – bringing it into the lock, ensuring it’s moored carefully and able to rise and fall with the water, leaving and mooring while Viv has been the lock person. Vee door locks are much easier than the guillotine locks of the River Nene, where the guillotine needs to be left in the up position to control the river, which might flood. Vee doors – like this Beckets Park Lock here in Northampton – can be left as you leave.

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I always thought Northampton was further north than this (but I guess in relation to Southampton it’s where it should be …). We’ve been travelling south west since Peterborough, so Gayton Junction will see Jenny and I begin the climb northwards, up the country. Canals, rather than rivers, too. A new experience for me.

So, back to Saturday, and after I booked into the Marina, Viv and I took ourselves off into town. I was looking for a church to worship at on Sunday. St Giles looked a little enthusiastic for me; All Saints much more my cup of tea. For the Seventh Sunday of Easter, the Sunday after Ascension Day, the music of the Mass is Kenneth Leighton in D and the anthem, Notre Pére by Duruflé. The Rector, Oliver Coss, is preaching and presiding. As I look at the notice boards, there’s the Bishop of Richborough, the Rt Revd Norman Shanks, smiling at the world, in a more prominent position than the Diocesan, Bishop Donald Allister. OK – so this parish accepts the episcopal oversight of one of the ‘flying bishops’; it’s not in favour of the ordination of women to the priesthood or episcopacy. It’ll be interesting to see if there’s any comment about the installation of the Rt Reverend and Rt Honorable Dame Sarah Mullally as the 133rd Bishop of London on the Saturday.

Viv and I ate at Pamukkale, the no 1 restaurant in town –  delicious Turkish food and atmosphere. The name means ‘cotton castle’, and refers to a natural site in Denizli Province in the Aegean region in the River Menderes valley, in SW Turkey where the deposits of carbonate minerals have left white terraces. The ancient Greco-Roman and Byzantine city of Hierapolis was built on the top of the white ‘castle’ which is about 9,000 feet, long, 2,000 feet wide and 500 feet high. People have bathed in its pools for thousands of years. Pamukkale is now a World Heritage Site, so the hotels, motorcycle tracks and roads have been removed. As we eat, we wondered why the interior of the restaurant was covered in white hardened foam. It wasn’t immediately obvious.

Then a performance of The Importance of Being Earnest by the Original Theatre Company at the Royal and Derngate – which was well performed. Oscar’s wit never fails.

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Sunday morning, and I leave Viv to head off to All Saint’s. A good choir, liturgy and sermon. At the end I asked around if anyone remembered Dan who now trains at Mirfield. Someone called Geoff did, who sang for over 70 years in the choir.

Viv and I had a rest day, cleaning and washing, pumping out, and filling up with water. Reading the paper.

Mark Cocker had replied to my email letting him know I was reading Our Place as we chug along. Viv has a property not far from him in Norfolk where she’s doing a similar job of clearing the marsh of trees, and he’s encouraged her to get in touch. We noted that we both have a mutual friend in Ronnie Blyth, who I last saw for lunch in September before I left Bury.

And Mark explained about some peewit behaviour I’d seen – a nesting male chasing off an interloper. See here for more info on the peewit or lapwing.  His latest chapter that I’m reading is about peewits, or lapwings – how devastating has been the loss – 65% since the 1970s. The bird was a particular interest of his when he was a boy: he’d note the breeding pairs he could see from his bedroom window. He writes ‘What we know incontrovertibly now is that cold stains of absence have spread across the once solidly red map of lapwing distribution. Big holes have appeared across roughly two-fifths of central Norfolk. The worst losses, however, are in the western highlands of Scotland, much of Wales and in the English south-west, where almost the entire peninsula from Land’s End almost to Bristol has been vacated.’ (2018: 199) He says Lincolnshire, which uses the lapwing as the emblem for its wildlife trust, may well have to find another symbol. Like many other ground nesting birds – snipe, gray partridge, turtle dove, skylark, yellow wagtail, corn bunting, yellowhammer – increased use of pesticides, predation by foxes, intensification of farming are to blame. Unless there’s serious remedial action, the losses will continue.

I love the way Cocker combines expert knowledge with beautiful writing. He speaks of loss, and how hard it is.

‘For statistics and columns of figures do not begin to express the effects of the changes at a personal and interior level. For some people, agricultural intensification has triggered an emotionally charged, even visceral response, at the root of which is a baffling confrontation with local extinction and loss of meaning. The effect is powerful enough to alter an individual’s personality and their entire view of life. It amounts to a persistent low-level heartache, a background melancholia, for which there is little remedy short of emigration.’ (2018: 195)

I know what he means.

Australia’s not the place to go, though. That land has been so devastated by European human impact – as described by Germaine Greer in her 2014 book White Beech – that it’s almost as tragic as what’s happening in the UK. Jenny and Bill tried to do something about it. Their property of 73 acres on the road out of Geelong towards the Western District, along the Barwon River, was a real attempt to enhance birdlife and biodiversity.

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They planted trees which have attracted bird and wild life.

Bill loved his water lilies.

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But this last summer and winter have been so dry that Jenny hasn’t pumped water out of the river to keep them going – it just doesn’t seem right.

She described watching her sheep go off for meat, and whether she had the time and energy to look after them. Instead she’s going to let the land to a neighbouring farmer for merinos – that classic sheep of Spanish origin that produces such beautiful wool. Now marketed properly, merino wool is the best to buy.

Viv, Jenny and I sit out in the sun, alongside the boat, and talk away about how the last two weeks have been.

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Viv teases me unmercifully, warning Jenny of all my worst faults.

I deny vociferously, of course.

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Jenny and I wander to look at Beckets Park Lock, so I can explain just how the paddles work, and where I’ll position the boat, and what the routine is that we’ve developed. But we’ve got 17 to do on Monday, and Viv is such an expert now, that it’ll be fine. Sally is joining us at Gayton, mid afternoon, to take Viv and the dogs home. I’ll miss them.

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One thought on “Northampton, 12-13 May 2018

  1. Dan Wyman

    Aw, lovely Geoff Hasler! Good to see he is still knocking around. No, he would not recognise me looking like that! haha

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