National Geographic : 1974 Jul
"I raised two children on the canals," says Mrs. Doris Collins with a smile as bright as her boat, the Belmont, moored at Brauns ton (facing page). "Gave birth to them right on board. I'd lie in for ten days, then the family was off again, carrying coal." "Number One"-a canal man who captained his own craft-Jack James made the run from Coventry to Oxford for 34 years. Fancy ropework and a model of his boat adorn the porch of his Stoke Bruerne cottage. hand-finished wood cabinets. A shower, chemical toilet, and galley equipped with gas stove, water heater, and refrigerator indicate we will not be forced to rough it. "Diesel fuel is aboard, and bottled gas more than you'll need in two weeks," says Mrs. Theakston. "She's a beautiful boat. I'll be taking her out myself this winter-the only time our boats are free. The summer season is usually fully booked by mid-March." With our gear and groceries stowed in Swan's commodious lockers, we are ready to get under way. One of the Swan Line dock hands comes along to see us through the first lock, a chamber somewhat like a giant bath tub with gates at both ends. Filling and emptying it raises and lowers boats from one canal level to another. The principle is simple, the practice ardu ous. Gingerly I attach our "key," a large windlass handle, to the ratchet gear that raises the "paddles"-sliding panels in the bottom gates-releasing 25,000 gallons of water to boil beneath Swan's bow as Linda struggles with the unfamiliar controls to keep the boat in place. When the chamber empties, I heave on the giant beams to open the gates. Linda steers into the lock, I heave the gates closed again, wind down the paddles, then wind up similar paddles at the top gate to send another 25,000 gallons surging into the lock. Five minutes, one blister, and a slightly strained back later, we are seven and a half feet higher and ready to cruise. "You'll get the hang of it," our instructor says cheerfully. "Just remember to close everything behind you-leave a paddle open and you can drain a whole section of canal." As he bids us farewell, threatening clouds deliver their first spattering of rain. We cruise northward at four miles an hour under a can opy of trees. The rain begins in earnest. Soon it is dark. We moor in a meadow, utterly alone in the heart of England's countryside, and utterly at peace. J INDA AND I are novices on the canals. But in a way we are veterans. For six weeks we have surveyed the canal sys tem by car-a journey that would take a year or more by boat. Our driver's-eye view of modern Britain is one of teeming motorways, juggernaut lorries in narrow-laned villages, and hordes of tourists whose gaudy buses surround beauty spots and historic sites like squadrons of jukeboxes on wheels.