The Heart of England

Here we are, in the very middle of England.

After the busy canal junction that is Braunston we encountered the three locks at Hillmorton (outside Rugby, on the map). These were different: two singles alongside each other to speed up transits. We’ve noticed differences in the locks as we’ve changed canals – these deliberately designed at 7 foot wide to restrict wider beamed boats from other canal systems taking advantage of the trading arrangements of this region. Boats were built at a certain size for certain waterways to control the business.

The stop lock at Hawkesbury Junction – very small drop of water – prevents too much water flowing from the Oxford into the Coventry. Even water was property.

It’s only with the leisure industry that boats have been designed to travel the whole system – and The Lark Ascending is the optimal length and breadth at 57 foot, 6’ 10” wide. (Though I’ve been told that the locks on the Leeds Liverpool will take a 58’ only on a diagonal, so 57 will only just fit).

It was windy this day, which always makes the boat difficult to handle. You’d be surprised at how hard it can be to moor. Martin and Christine – from the day before, who we’d accompanied through the tunnel – joined us, which helped. It was cold too. When we reached Newbold, having passed Rugby with no where to moor, we decided to walk back – not realising how far it is on foot!

Rugby has no Waterstones, and the centre was rather tired, but the Church was beautiful.

A great welcome pack for visitors too. St Andrew’s obviously has a good town centre ministry, with a café in the church and lots of groups going on. The church has two peals of bells – one of 8 cast in 1895 at Whitechapel in the North East Tower, and another of 5 cast in 1711 in the West Tower, so St Andrew’s is the only church in the world with two peals that are regularly rung in the English full circle tradition. There’s a good little explanation about change ringing too.

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Walking into Rugby and back from Newbold took some time out of the day, and I was anxious about the loss of time. I need not have worried, though. We would have been delayed any way.

On we went, to find, after the next bend or two in the river, boats lining the towpath and very quickly the message met us that there was a large oak tree across the way.

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So we too moored up – near Brinklow – and went to investigate. Beautiful spot, in the middle of a wood, and the news that the team were on their way, but were stuck on the M1. When they arrived, they set to with chain saw, finishing at 9 pm, with half the job done. This Eastern European team did a great job, and in the morning, another team was there.

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The falling and felling of the tree attracted a lot of attention. Over 50 boats eventually queued up each way, all with opinions. There was Nick Wolfe, Carrier, with his working boat, who got busy with his wheel barrow, taking the sawn up trunk to his cavernous boat – until he got a puncture, and couldn’t find the green slime, so had to mend it with a bicycle repair kit. He told me he owned the boat, and made just enough to cover the reduced working boat license of £1000 a year. He was off to Fradley for a job he was meant to do on Friday, and didn’t think he’d make it. He wasn’t too bothered. These things happen.

There were opinions about  why the oak had fallen, with general consensus that it was rotten at base. A beautiful tree, though – a shame to see it down. I counted at least 70 rings. The oaks are at the best – that bright, clean green that will soon fade to summer and into the tiredness of August. But now – glorious, alongside the may blossom.

There’s some sign of ash die back – the telltale orange on the trunk and leaves missing from the outer branches and twigs – but on the whole I’m impressed by the quality of the canals as corridors of wildlife, in what seem to be rather sterile arable land around. But even this is poor, compared with my childhood in the 1970s. No voles, or stoats, or cornbuntings, yellowhammers, flycatchers. Very few swallows; no more swifts since those sightings at Northampton.  A few fields full of buttercups and other flowers, but largely the flowers are alongside us – meadow vetch, forget me not, comfrey, bugle, speedwell. Meadows should be full of them. Insects too (which have suffered a 70% depletion – we can’t do without insects).

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Jenny and I walked into Brinklow and bought some pansies, which are now planted out in a tub I bought from another boat,

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and when we got back the first boats were moving. The tree was cleared by 11 and we were through by 11.15 with tight congestion continuing for a good while.

Good bye Brinklow.

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The Oxford Canal took us on, then, to the outskirts of Coventry where we joined the Coventry Canal, through Nuneaton, and on to Atherstone, where we moored up. There were 11 locks to do the next morning, Friday.

We walked for a drink at a pub – not the best, we discovered as we walked back – but never mind. We stopped to talk to a professional fisherman about how many ducklings are taken by pike – he reckoned each fish would take one a day. The largest brood we’ve seen was of 15 ducklings.

I’ve finished Mark Cocker’s book Our Place. (Penguin, Random House, 2018).

His main argument is that the lack of coordination amongst environment groups has to be addressed, if concerted action is to be taken to reverse the intensity of the reduction of wildlife in the UK today. There are so many vested interests that are stacked against the flourishing of biodiversity, not least farmers and land owners and the subsidies they receive to farm intensively, that a much better political engagement needs to be made.

One of the problems is the myth that everything’s ok – that we’re still a green and pleasant land. TV programmes, such as Britain’s Big Wildlife Revival is an obvious example. Such myths keep false hopes alive.

Cocker is good on what he describes as a deep melancholia that many feel – and how the natural world around us has for centuries replenished our collective spirit, by ‘immersion in nature’s unfathomable and obliterating otherness, so that it can purge the travails and toxins of our own making’ (2018: 285). He writes

Nature’s great and irreversible continuities – the passage of the clouds, the turning of the seasons – measure all our smallnesses. They put things in perspective. They render us humble. … Hope is written into all our connections with the rest of nature, and it is a two-way process. … It begins the moment you open the door to go outside. You have only to have the sun on your back, the wind in your face and birdsong in your heart to know their rivet-bursting powers of liberation. … It explains why we cling so tenaciously to the myth that this country continues inviolate. We don’t want to hear that our final redoubt, the place where we go when our human condition is overwhelming, is itself in need. Alas, it is. In the twentieth century, the British drained their landscape of wildlife, otherness, meaning, cultural riches and hope.

He continues that we are in denial.

What we have done to our country becomes the truth that dare not speak its name. However, hope lies, surely, not in perpetrating any myth, not in doctoring the facts, but in owning them squarely and with the whole of ourselves (2018: 286/7).  

I like his insistence that to save Britain’s Wildlife before it is too late requires a political and strategic approach, and I, for one, would fall behind.

For me this is to bring to the table my own passion that is deeply rooted in my Christianity – that goes almost all the way with the quotation from George Trevelyan who wrote, ‘By the side of religion, by the side of science, by the side of poetry and art stands natural beauty, not as a rival to these, but as the common inspirer and nourisher of them all.’

For me that beauty is one of the ultimate gifts of a creator God, and with our diminishing belief in that God, goes our increasing disrespect and contempt for the natural world we are given. The rot is at the roots.

As this pilgrimage unfolds, with the intense re-engagement with the natural world that canals offer, I’m finding a personal restoration is happening. A redefining of what my life is about, what my deepest passions and concerns are.

The profound joy I experience with the delight of birdsong, and the vibrancy and colour around, stirs in me the desire to write well to inspire a sense of the otherness of the world around, and how we are shaped in our encounter with the natural world, and through the beauty, to seek the ultimate otherness that is God.

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