Sunday, 19 June 2011

A Song, Birds, Tunnels

A Song

So, music's great, isn't it? In general. Radiohead, they're a good band, right? Varied, interesting musically, a bit mad and angry and beautiful. I'm a fan. In general. I like Paranoid Android, it's a good song. It's been in my head all day. But not the Radiohead version. I prefer this one - not because it's better, but because it was this version that made me actually listen to it. It's this one that I hear in my head when anyone mentions the song, not the original. It's this one I sing along to. It's very clever and I like it. If you like it too, you might like Tripod's original stuff. Or you might not. If you feel inclined to look, I recommend "Fabian" or "Gonna Make You Happy".



Birds unnerve me. They don't seem to need shelter. I love shelter, me. A nice duvet and a roof and a cup of tea. Birds build nests when they have to lay eggs. Otherwise, they're perfectly happy to sleep in the middle of a path, or as they fly, or sitting on the end of a branch, or floating in the water. Don't they get cold?! I'd get cold. Their entire existence is just as they are, no clothes, no hot drinks, no houses. Even Christopher McCandless lived in a bus.

Herons are funny ones, too. They don't particularly like people, but they're a bit stubborn. They will find a place to sit, within sight of fish so they know when to swoop. They will not move. They'll wait until you're two feet away, then they'll fly away somewhere nearby. You'd think they would go the opposite direction but no, they continue in the same way as you're going, then get all huffy and fly off when you inevitably approach again.


We're going through two long tunnels this week. One is just over 2000 metres and the other is just over 3000. They take about half an hour and forty five minutes to get through, respectively. I LOVE going through tunnels in a boat. Imagine a bright sunny day, not a cloud in the sky, pretty green trees waving in a slight breeze. Then imagine going into a darkened tunnel, the end of which isn't visible. The air gets cooler. The breeze suddenly stills. You've got a hood up - the ceiling drips, and your engine smoke disturbs the spiders and other insects enough for them to descend towards your head to find out what's going on. You can make out the brickwork, for a while, but as you get further and further in, all light vanishes aside from the faint glowing from the windows of your boat. This dim yellow picks out crooked stones and the chains just above water level. If you fall in, you can use these chains to feel your way towards the nearest end. In some tunnels are glow-in-the-dark arrows stuck to the wall to show the halfway point. When you get towards the centre, all you can see is the occasional repeated pattern of stonework in the wall. It feels like time has vanished, you're in a loop and you can't remember how you got there. This carries on for a while. Ten minutes, maybe. Ten minutes of silence and damp darkness and no sign of life. You can't even tell if you're moving any more. Then it begins to get lighter and your eyes are shaken from their trance. The exit is a pinprick in the distance, but is nonetheless visible. It slowly gets bigger, and all you can do is stare at it, waiting for it to reach you. All of a sudden you are out in the bright sunlight again, trees flickering around you, a warmth on your face, and your brain wakes up as you return to real life.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Particular Intricacies Of Locks For Those Who Are Unfamiliar With The Process

Canals and locks are a mystery to some people. This doesn’t particularly surprise me, since before last year they didn’t really exist in my world – I would have been hard pressed to remember what a lock was called, let alone explain how it worked. But there are a growing number of friends, guests, passersby etc who ask us to describe what’s going on and how it happens. So here might be a very long-winded way to explain an incredibly simple process, but I think it covers most things.

The canal system in the UK is a mish-mash of interconnected rivers and passages, developed over a long time (it’s still going on today, although it’s mostly restoration and not creation). I don’t have the space to go into the entire history of locks but there are heaps of websites and books devoted to the topic – if you’re interested in a brief overview that isn’t country-specific, try Wikipedia’s entry.

Our country isn’t flat. There are hills and undulations and valleys, and there had to be some way of overcoming this if we were ever to use boats as long-distance transport (obviously these were the days before trains, planes and automobiles; cargo businesses on canals and rivers are now only a tiny fraction of what they once were). So locks were used, and standard sizes put into place by Brindley. Lock sizes vary from canal to canal, with big Thames locks able to accommodate lots of boats at once and “narrow locks”, which are about 7’ by 70’, only generally meant for one narrowboat. The locks Tranquil Rose can go through have to be over 12’ wide, so we can’t go further north than Warwick as they tend to narrow after this.

The basic idea of a lock is that a vessel can be lifted up from one level of water to the next, so the whole waterway system is a series of steps. There are various ways other than locks to do this – for example the Anderton Boat Lift or the Falkirk Wheel - but these are few and far between.

So, how do we work them? When you’re approaching a lock in your boat, it’s a good idea if you can spare someone to jump off (onto the bank, obviously) and run ahead to set it. Setting it means making sure the level of water in the lock is the same as the level at which your boat is sitting, so that the gates can open and the boat can enter. To do this you use a windlass, which is a right-angled “key” which fits onto the spindle attached to a paddle built into the gate. When you wind the spindle round with your windlass, it raises or lowers the paddle, either letting water in or keeping it out.

With me so far?

When you’ve equalled out the levels of the water, it should be easy enough to open both of the gates. It’s nice to have a person on each side so you don’t need to run down to the end gates and over the lock to open the second one yourself – although on the narrow locks, given a bit of bravery, you can jump the three or so feet from the gate you’ve just opened to the edge of the one on the opposite side, negating the need for all the running about.

Then the boat can get into the lock, and you shut the gates behind it, remembering to wind the paddles back down. If you leave the paddles up, then start letting water in the other end, it’ll go straight through the lock, the boat’ll go nowhere, and you might flood the pound – stretch of water between locks – below. There’s a cill under the water at one end (it means sill. I have no idea why they spell it cill. But they do) which is the bottom of the higher bit of canal, so if you’re going downhill you need to make sure the boat has the space to be away from that; if the water is let out and the stern of the boat gets stuck on the cill while the bow is still going down...well, it’s not good. Picture it.

So the boat’s in the lock - let’s say at the bottom, so you’re going uphill. The person with the windlass, after making sure the paddles in the bottom gates are now closed, goes to raise the paddles in the top gates, letting water in so that the level in the lock gets high enough to be equal to the level in the pound above. Depending on the depth of the lock and the size of the boat, this can be done with varying amounts of speed. Top gates can have ground paddles and/or gate paddles. Ground paddles are channels from the pound into the lock going through the brickwork of the sides, so the water flows underneath where you’re standing – this is a safer/slower method of getting water in, and should always be used first. Gate paddles are, as it sounds, paddles built into the gate, so if you’ve got people sitting in the front of your boat and you open the paddles while they’re still above the water level, those people have got a bit of a soaking in store. Generally you open the ground paddles and wait until the water covers the gate ones, then you can open them with minimum splashing!

When the water has risen enough to be level, you open the top gates, allowing your boat to exit the lock, and away you go. On most canals the etiquette is to wind the paddles back down and close the gates after you, although there are a couple of exceptions – the Wey Navigation in Surrey, for example, is one waterway where you leave open whichever gates you’ve exited (although still winding the paddles down), ready for the next boat to come in the opposite direction. Obviously if there’s a boat on the horizon heading towards you on other canals, it’s a bit mean to close the gates right in front of them so in that case it’s fine to leave them open!
The easiest way to remember the tos and fros of it is just to do it, but it does help to have a basic understanding. So if you’re planning on boating in the near future, I hope it’s been of some use. If it hasn’t, don’t worry, I’ll go back to writing poems in a day or two.

Friday, 10 June 2011

The Split Part One

This is a two part story, the first part of which is read by top Swedish (in case you couldn't translate!) gal Emine G├╝ler. Second part coming shortly.


The Split Part One

I haven't been back for fifteen years
I grip the plane, my fears
cloud around me
I don't like travelling alone

He isn't with me, I told him to stay
With our heart, our home
Yet I wish
He had tried harder to insist
I don't like travelling alone

I get in a taxi at the airport
"Where to today?" the man asks
as if we were familiar
"Just the usual," I joke,
"Just the usual."
I have to repeat it
My accent is warped with the years away
The moment is lost
My head down
I pray

Life isn't so grand
He's at the end of a thousand miles
I'm at the end of my patience
I won't see his eyes for
five months
There was no time to think
I thought wrongly
I could have changed my mind
He could have changed my mind
He should have changed my mind