I’ve been planning several posts about my recent narrowboat holiday, but have been struggling to find the time to write them! Today, I’m determined to start, not only because that whole week provided some wonderful experiences that I’d like to share, but also because I want to celebrate a brief meeting with an extraordinary volunteer.
The background circumstances of our meeting were inauspicious, but it might never have taken place without them. It was a baking hot Thursday afternoon and our boat (endearingly named ‘Short-toed Eagle’) was approaching Birmingham City Centre, gradually being steered by my husband up the thirteen Farmer’s Bridge Locks, the final steep (eighty feet) flight into the city’s heart, while I manipulated the lock-gates; not far into the flight, we heard an explosive argument taking place, just out of sight, on the towpath. I should explain that this particular section of the BCN (Birmingham Canal Navigations) is a very public place to be negotiating locks, as office and shop workers take their lunches here and joggers, cyclists and families compete for space on the restored towpath. We were accompanied some of the way by a group of locals on bikes, who watched the whole process of ‘locking up’ several times over, but didn’t volunteer (sadly, for moving the gates is a hard job on a hot day!) to help!
This lock flight, as I hope you can see from the photographs, is an astonishing blend of old and new, for it passes through (and under!) the commercial centre of Birmingham.
Anyway, back to the ‘tiff’: The vocabulary of the two participants was ferocious but limited. ‘**** you!’ bellowed one. ‘**** off!’ screamed the other. After a few minutes, a couple in their early twenties strode into view: she, tanned with dark hair, wearing a short but chic black dress accompanied by stiletto heels; he, less surprisingly, perhaps, sporting a baggy T-shirt, jeans and baseball cap. The tirade continued. Sixteen or so rounds of expletives were spat back and forth with very little sub-text, ricocheting off the walls of the tall buildings around the canal. Eventually it became clear that he wanted to borrow her mobile phone to get a score from his dealer and she wasn’t having it (although she actually seemed higher on something than he was).
Their mood was volatile, so I thought it best to be discreet; as they passed me, I focused on trying to shift the paddles on my lock-gate, the ratchets of which were ancient and troublesome. As I was leaning my full weight on my windlass, I became aware of a man standing beside me. I looked up to see an athletic and well-preserved gentleman in his sixties. He offered to help. I saw that he was also carrying a windlass, and thought that he must have come from a boat further up.
He was very anxious to tell me that the incident that I’d just witnessed was not typical and that the towpaths were safe places. He was obviously quite proud of the local canal complex and even more of Birmingham itself. He told me that his name was Michael Payne and that since his retirement he had worked a few shifts each week as a volunteer for the Canals and Rivers Trust. I asked him if he also had a boat and he replied that he had a part-share in one, which was currently moored at Royston in Leicestershire.
Michael was a mine of information. As we worked our way up the remaining locks in the flight, he pointed out to me an offshoot of the canal that had been buried in the 1950s and rediscovered during excavations for a new office block and showed me an impressive building that had once housed a large coffee-importing business in Birmingham. This had been abandoned decades ago and opened up only recently, when the copper industrial coffee-grinding machinery had been found there, still intact. He said that all this has been restored and the building will shortly be opened as a museum dedicated to coffee. I was fascinated by this story and wondered under what circumstances a building could be left like this. Did no-one own it? Had all the owners died? Why hadn’t the machinery been sold off when it ceased trading? Perhaps the answers will come from the museum itself.
Michael’s shift was due to end, but he said that he’d carry on helping me until we reached the top of the flight. I was grateful, as all the lock mechanisms were misshapen, old and extremely unyielding. My husband, who was joining in the conversation from the narrowboat, told him that I was a crime fiction writer (not sparing my blushes!) and Michael said that he was a big Donna Leon fan. Apparently he and his wife have visited Venice several times, where they’ve joined the walking tours that are arranged to allow devotees to follow in Inspector Brunetti’s footsteps.
I thought that this was a very intriguing idea. Should I myself organise walking tours in order to introduce my readers to the Spalding (and South Lincolnshire) of DI Yates? I’m not sure, however, that it would help me to curry favour with my Fenland friends and fans who have been so hospitable and generous with their support since DI Yates was born! On the whole, I think I’d sooner organise a walking tour of the Farmer’s Bridge Flight, but I’d have to engage Michael to lead it.
If you’re reading this, Michael, may I just say that it was a great pleasure to meet you and to have the benefit of your conversation for an hour or two. We owe you a very great debt of gratitude for your skilful management of the (to me) troublesome ratchets of the Farmer’s Bridge flight. And if there ever is a DI Yates walking tour of Spalding, I shall make sure that you hear of it.
[Thanks to my husband for all the pictures, which he managed with his camera in one hand and the tiller in the other!]
All text and photographs on this website © Christina James