I’d looked forward to the mid-term break and the chance of a few days aboard Eileen enjoying a bit of Autumn boating.
The ‘outward leg’ of the short trip (up the Oxford Canal to Cropredy) was to be solitary; a necessary time to shed the toxic stresses of inner-city life and an intense time work-wise. The Plan was that Claire and the Boys would then follow after a couple of days and help crew the boat on the ‘return leg’ to Banbury. Daughter Molly had meanwhile whisked herself off to the grandparents in Suffolk as, with ‘tweenage’ determination, she’s currently set herself squarely against spending any time at all on ‘that spidery old boat’ preferring to spend her holiday resolutely on dry land.
As I don’t do sitting around at all well, keeping busy – with a schedule and a goal – is my way of winding down. The boat’s proved the perfect vehicle for a restless soul like me, as she demands constant attention. She keeps me very busy yet also enables me to lose myself and be more fully at ease with myself than anywhere else I know. Holding the tiller and steering her forward is where I’m most likely to meet the me-ness in me; and where with my roles and responsibilities moved backstage, I can savour the sights and sounds of a familiar country canal.
In Phil Smith’s book ‘On Walking’ he makes the following generous offer – ‘You are free to use the ideas and experiences here and turn them into whatever kind of walking you wish: romantic, subversive, nosey, convivial, meditational, whatever. I like multiplicity and I think there may be some good in it – so long as your walking does not exclude the walking of others, I will be chuffed to think you are using any tactics or ideas here.’
I’d like to take up Phil’s generous offer to help me to put into words something of my thinking when setting out ‘inlanding’ by old boat.
“Some very serious people will think that my
walkingboating is escapist (sometimes I wonder if they might be right), but most of the time it feels complex to me. It feels like a fight inside the fabrics of society for access to all those things that our overdeveloped economies circulate at speeds just beyond our grasp; inner life, the wild absurdities of our unique and subjective feelings, beautiful common treasures, uncostable pleasures, conviviality, an ethics of stranger hood and nomadic thinking.”
pg 14 On Walking (NB. my amendment to the text, swapping walking for boating)
For me setting out boating holds something akin to Phil’s walking, not only do we travel at the same pace (often slower!) but boating is also a creative disruption of everyday life. To drop down onto the Cut from any road, either rural or urban, is to immediately experience a sense of other worldliness . The Cut is still (despite commodification and commercialism, H&S by-laws and ever-encroaching development) a mysterious, beguiling and seductive place.
Unhitching the ropes and rallying the engine at the start of any journey is intensely enjoyable (to the point of anxiety-inducing painfulness sometimes).
You might wonder where on earth the adventure could be in navigating a muddy ditch little more than 4 feet deep and 20 feet wide, where often there isn’t even the freedom to turn around at will. But always, always, no matter how many times I loose the ropes and steer Eileen out of the wharf and onto the mainline, there’s a shiver of anticipation and elation, and a casting off of complexity for the relative simplicity and focused mindfulness of steering the boat. I treasure the freedoms inherent in the constraint of the Cut. The limitations it imposes provide an opportunity for my mind to drift, to have the time, space and freedom to think.
It’s as much an inner journey as an outer journey.
“Two or three hours
walkingboating will carry me to as strange a country as I expect to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen before is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey.”
Henry David Thoreau (NB. my amendment to the text, swapping walking for boating)