“Not I, nor anyone else can travel that road for you.
You must travel it by yourself.
It is not far. It is within reach.
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know.
Perhaps it is everywhere – on water and land.”

― Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

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The title of this post was prompted by a story from the huge factory that dominates the skyline of Banbury’s eastern edge. The factory, owned in the late 70’s and early 80’s by General Foods Ltd, was then better known as the Bird’s Custard Factory. In 1981 corn flour escaped from a hopper and, mingling with the air, became explosive. It was ignited by an electrical spark and caused a huge explosion seriously injuring nine workers. If you have any doubt about the explosive qualities of custard powder, type ‘custard powder explosion’ into a search engine… Today the factory belches out coffee-flavoured gouts of smoke and leaves a coffee-ish residue on the surrounding landscape. This smoking behemoth is locally called ‘the Dragon’, hence ‘Custard & the Dragon’…

In going inland on the old boat, regardless of distance, my ever-shifting companions are stories – an inner geography of resonances, reminiscences, reactions, reflections and responses. Stories are a slippery companion – sometimes they’re the shadow of myself, sometimes the shadow of an invisible college of fellow travellers – a companionable frayed edge presence that is never resolved into either outright fiction or organised thought. My story companions are a quiet yet powerful crowd that influence my mood and response to the moment; and at other times they’re just shadow, hints of possible, unseen or unspoken encounters…

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Leaving Grimsbury Wharf I travelled along a straight length of canal adjacent to the Southam Road. It’s a familiar Water Road. Sudden exchanges, snatched conversations that last as long as twoo boats passing at walking pace.

To keep myself entertained during the long hours manning the tiller I’ve adapted a range of what might be call sensitising strategies that enable me to engage with the ever-changing landscape around me without abandoning steering the boat.

The strategies include:

‘Walking without Walking’ or ‘BFG’ (based on the following quote from Roald Dahl’s wonderful children’s book)

The Giant ran on and on. But now a curious change took place in his way of running. He seemed suddenly to go into a higher gear. Faster and faster he went and soon he was travelling at such a speed that the landscape became blurred. The wind stung Sophie’s cheeks. It made her eyes water. It whipped her head back and whistled in her ears. She could no longer feel the Giant’s feet touching the ground. She had a weird sensation they were flying. It was impossible to tell whether there were over land or sea. This Giant has some sort of magic in his legs.

It’s all about what the Boys might call ‘magical walking’ or ‘walking in your mind’. It’s about foraging virtually over hedgerows and behind trees, over hills and down valleys. It could rather grandly be called a psycho-geographical act, but it’s more fun than that, imagining a journey over and across landscapes when it’s not possible to physically walk them. It’s an internalised, quiet activity that’s calming and creative. It raises and reforms memories, feeling and images and places them in new settings.

Specificity

This is about placing your attention thoughtfully. It’s about looking closely at a detail in the landscape – a bridge or building, tree or gate and enjoying the gathering of sensory information as you approach it. The changing details, the changing colours, moods, atmosphere; the localised sounds, smells, even, where possible the feel of the object.

Repetition

This is a strategy I employ most regularly in boating the same route again and again.

It involves being aware of the phases of conscious appreciation, from initial novelty and excitement, through  confirmation (seeing the same things again and again) to appreciation of the subtle changes of those same things and finally to new seeing just at the point when you think there’s little else left to see. New seeing could be a prompted by novel combinations of factors, the animation of a familiar view by the action of a flock of birds or cows; the disruption of a view by a fallen tree or weather or human intervention (thrown litter, fire, building development, graffiti etc.)

No matter how often I boat along a familiar section of the canal there’s always something to look forward to and savour.

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Past our old mooring at Hardwick Wharf, a moment heady with smiles, reminiscences and adventures…

“The only journey is the one within.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke

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And out into open countryside beyond the rushing haste of the M40 motorway and into an altogether different landscape of hawthorn hedges and humped back bridges…
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Autumn, a twilight early afternoon, the days meagre light already fading fast… The regular bass-beat of the engine’s exhaust and the high treble percussion of rattling shuttering around the engine bay. It’s the music of my journey.

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