Sunday, 29 March 2009

Before Day One

It must have been some time in September 1982. I was walking near the Pot of Beer pub when I discovered a bridge. Beyond the bridge was a silent, jet black pool lined by empty factories. In the distance I could just make out a lock gate, and I was intrigued.

There were no boats, then as now. I remember looking later for any sign of the canal from my bedroom window, high up in Dalton Tower, one of Aston University's tower-block halls of residence. I could see the graceful lines of the Curzon Street terminus of the original railway to Birmingham. But no sign of the canal from my perch up in the sky.

Just days later I resolved to find a way down to the canal, and found the secret entrance just one street to the north. I remember descending a few steps from the 1980s and stumbling into the 1890s; the sense of history was immediate and all around me. I knew nothing about why the canal was here or where it went, but was struck by the age of everything. I walked a short distance south to discover the red brick portal of the short Ashted Tunnel. I peered through to the far end but decided not to walk through. I was still a bit nervous: this was a lonely place. Even the streets above were usually deserted.

I returned to Lister Street and decided to walk on ahead. Just a few steps took me over a hump-back bridge and beyond this the water splayed out to form a triangular pool. One branch disappeared down through a leaking lock to who knows where? The other plunged under the Aston Expressway.

I was hooked. This was history. It was my secret and no-one else knew about it. In the mid-1980s, I walked the entire canal network of Birmingham and the Black Country. I graduated to hiring boats - when I could find a mixed-sex group of people willing to go away for a weekend - and exploring further afield: Stratford, down towards Tardebigge, the delights of Warwickshire. This was my university years, and in 1984 during a year working in Kilmarnock for the local bus company I also walked much of the Forth & Clyde Canal. I recolved to buy a narrowboat at the earliest opportunity. I intended to explore the furthest reaches of the waterways network.

But then reality appeared in the shape of a job and for the next 16 years I was an expatriate. I continued to explore waterways but these were grander, wilder affairs - the Yangtze, the Yellow River, the Grand Canal, the Mekong, the Intracoastal Waterway, the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and, for four years, the canals of the Netherlands around The Hague and Rotterdam.

In 2007, we returned to England, a lot older and with two teenagers. After settling in to life back home, we turned our attention to that unresolved dream of the 1980s. The search started back in January 2008, but finding the right boat was difficult. But we persevered and yesterday we had our offer for North Star accepted.  

Twenty three years have passed by.  It is difficult for many to understand the attraction of the canals or of owning a boat; maybe it's just an English thing. We English do boats. We have done boats since we were Saxons or Vikings or Franks. It's what we do. And now I have one. It is difficult to put into words how I feel, at last achieving my longest held dream. It's a mixture of exhilaration, trepidation, anticipation and the need to take more time off work.

Welcome to the family, North Star.

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