28 May 2008

Fings ain't wot they used to be

I’m a great planner. Not great as in ‘good at it but great as ‘do a lot of it.’ Choosing where we’re going next is always fascinating although I’m susceptible to the last minute change - a trip to Stoke Bruerne metamorphosed into the Leicester Ring in the time it took me to consume one of the Fradley Cafe’s fine breakfasts.

My slight dilemma at the moment is that A has a pathological aversion to the south. “I was born in the south, I live in the south, I’ve seen enough of the south, I don’t want to cruise in the south” sort of sums up his feelings on the matter although it’s allied to a perception that it is much busier on southern canals. I don’t know about this but you can imagine our last trip across the boat-less prairies of Lancashire, can’t you – ‘Shangri-La is here and it’s called the Leigh Branch’.

I wouldn’t let his feelings influence my choices, mind. So how come we haven’t been south of Braunston, ever, as a couple? Well, it just so happens that I too have wanted to explore the more northerly points of our canal system having given the Midlands a good going over, and so we have been able to reach an agreeable accommodation over our recent cruising itineraries. But the time will come. The Oxford and Grand Union dominated my childhood cruising and I can’t wait to revisit them and see how they have changed. Parts will probably be unrecognisable, like Banbury which has undergone a complete makeover since my last visit (Memorable for my dad having an almighty super-sulk when my mum wouldn’t let him stay in the pub. Mum and I consoled ourselves with Chicken McNuggets which were quite new at the time and whose novelty must have lured us in....can’t think of another reason why I’d have willingly wanted to eat deep fried cardboard.)

In fact, one of the things that startled me most when I returned to the cut after a decade’s absence (as a twenties singleton, canals sort of passed me by....) was how much things had altered, or rather, improved. Fazeley was no longer the dark and satanic place that my dad, brother and I had once ventured into against our better judgement; here were smart new houses, a BW office and trendy new apartments. Braunston and Blisworth tunnels were open, as was every other extant tunnel – no two year closures now to put the kybosh on your cruising. There was only one Pennine crossing back then and we were all applauding the Huddersfield Canal Society for a blind optimism that proved us all wrong. And where once the K&A was a dotted line on my guidebook now it is a solid example of what can be done with a little vision and a lot of perseverance, bringing pleasure to thousands every year.

I applaud the current efforts of organisations such as SOW in fighting again for our waterways but I wonder if we ever stop to appreciate just how much has been achieved across the country in the last three decades. Are things really that bad today? From where I’m sitting, the canals are a better, brighter place than that into which I was inducted as a bouncing, bawling one year old. When a leaking gate has just peed all over me and I’ve got accidentally enmeshed in that ubiquitous orange safety fencing, I'll try to remember that.

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