For a brief moment, through a gap in the trees of the Forest of Arden, I caught a glimpse of Bredon Hill. It was the home of my boyhood and forty-five years peeled back to a time when I once ran to the top of the hill to see the land of Seven Kingdoms. On that day long ago the wind whipped smartly through long hair that I no longer have. On that day the world was new and exciting and I could see forever to the southwest over Tewksbury to Gloucester in the shimmering distance. A patchwork of silver threads marked the rivers Severn and Avon. A distant smoky haze could be the estuary near Bristol. Like my life before me, the vista seemed endless.
A slight bump bought me back to the present as the canal boat on which I was travelling caught the edge of a nearby bridge path. Sad that my reverie had ended I tried once more to catch a glimpse of my beloved Bredon Hill. But it was too late. Dense trees of the ancient Arden Forest carried the day with timeless beauty and my boyhood memories faded under an emerald canopy.
To help the reader make sense of my rambling, indulgent introduction, a short history of the canals in the Midlands of England would be in order. The canal system of England grew up during the birth of the Industrial Revolution during the 18th Century. Canals were one of the few ways a factory owner could get products out of the English Midlands to the port cities and onto the rest of the world. As other means of transportation became dominant, sadly the canal system fell into decay. They were then nationalized during the Labor Government of the 1960’s. Nationalization did nothing to revitalize the canals but groups of canal enthusiasts and historians banded together to restore many canals to their former glory. Canal barges, abandoned in dismal Marinas, were converted by boating entrepreneurs and a whole vacation industry boomed on the waterways from which Britain fuelled an empire.
It is on such a boat that I recently found myself. Continual reminders of my past life abounded on every bend of the canal. Village names, public houses, tunnels, wild life, trees – an entire panorama flooded my senses. Scenes unchanged for centuries went by in slow, sedate grace. Local villagers and city folk actually walked alongside the boat as we chugged slowly onward with a dignity that sometimes did not match the mug of tea or mouthful of sandwich. Unusual vistas opened up on occasion as an aqueduct was crossed and I enjoyed the odd sensation of gliding along on a boat on a canal that crossed a four lane highway. Sheep in the nearby field appeared to “baa” in amusement at the boat as it glided overhead. I must have provided a humorous break to the rigors of their lambing season.
What a person does not realize about canals is that they do not follow the rise and fall of the land. To move up or down the boat has to go through a lock, the passage of which is left to the devices of the boat crew. The entire experience is therefore as good or bad as the crew is at following instructions from the hire company staff. Fortunately in my case, we had a good grew and our lock passages were without any serious tragedy. Amazingly the locks were, in some cases, built at the time of the American Civil War and are still functional and relatively impervious to damage. British Waterways conducts constant maintenance which appears to be primarily cosmetic as the locks are built for an eternity of constant use. The secret of locks is that they are almost always near a pub or restaurant, so the tired crew can be fed and watered before moving on.
My particular journey was adventurous for the length of time we had planned to hire the boat. We decided on a trip from Alvechurch to Stratford-upon-Avon. The trip was, fortunately, managed with relative ease. The night we spent in Stratford saw us moored alongside a swan’s nest. The mother swan sat there the whole time and only left her eggs to retrieve the few scraps of bread we gave her. The father, like some deadbeat Dad, seemed to show up once in a while and check on his mate. But he did not participate in the serious business of keeping the eggs warm.
Stratford was departed on a bright morning in the basin adjacent to the Royal Shakespeare Theater. Much fun was to be had in the basin when the boat lost reverse gear. Turning a seventy foot narrow boat in a small boat basin looked like something from a Monty Python sketch. My job consisted of nodding wisely when well meaning boaters bellowed helpfully:
“Use reverse gear!”
After much sweating, cursing and hard work the crew managed to manhandle the boat around and we found ourselves back at the mooring where we had spent the night. One of the manly crew dived into the engine compartment and dismantled the weed hatch. Inside he found a large, grubby sweatshirt that had wrapped itself around the prop shaft. The offending sweatshirt was spread like a trophy on the roof of the boat and we continued on our journey through time and history.
We then traversed land so old that no Roman roads ever penetrated. Thorkell Arden held this ground after the Norman invasion of 1066. William Shakespeare’s mother was a descendant of that line. Knights Templar and Knights Hospitaller held the preceptory at Temple Basall in the heart of this wooded countryside until the 16th Century. The leader of the Gunpowder plot, an attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament, came from Lapworth, a village along our meandering path.
As I manned the tiller and leaned wistfully against the helm, my thoughts began to wander. My youthful reading of Shakespeare came to mind and I imagined that some of his wonderful poetic phrases must have been written in the very fields through which we drifted. As an end to my journey and to share the mood, I would invite the reader to that part of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” where the immortal bard writes:
“I know a bank where the wild thyme blows,
Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,
Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,
With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine.”