‘Never should ha’ reopened that.’
‘Pretty line though.’
‘Autumn too I reckon, what with the trees.’
‘Wouldn’t catch me there out of season – nor anyone with sense.’
‘When they do their winter maintenance, then? Best part of preserved steam, that is – no public to bother with.’
‘They squeeze it in, I suppose. Chap who works there told me that about mid to late October someone says ‘reckon that’s it till Spring, now’ and they all just down tools and go – as a body, like, as if no-one wants to be the one left behind on his own.’
‘I heard that.’
‘Like I said, never should ha’ reopened it.’
It’s surprising how you can tune into a conversation where no names are mentioned, yet know exactly what (or where) is being talked about. It made me draw my coat closer about me and sit nearer the fire with my pint. The potter’s valley was the name I gave it, though it isn’t called that on the map. When I heard them talk I made a vain effort to think of pleasant days on the canal – summer days – but November was always the month I came back to; out of season, as the man said.
I had a friend – a potter, hence my name for it – who lived in that valley all year round, though he took precautions: the entrance to his house was guarded by a little stream. He had a drawbridge that he lowered when a visitor rang the bell that hung on a post. He treated it as a joke, of course, a bit of fine English eccentricity to please American visitors, but I don’t think it was, really. It was from him that I learned about the railway, with its strictly-observed season.
‘So, why do they leave?’ I asked.
‘I doubt if they could tell you,’ was his reply. ‘It’s just a feeling they have, that they should be gone, that they ought not to stay around.’
‘But you stay around.’
‘I’m careful. And maybe my trade gives me a better understanding of these things – working with the elements, you know – earth, fire, water – air, too’ (he touched the leather-lunged bellows he used to blow up his fire) ‘ – you can always come to an accommodation.’
He spoke in a lighthearted way, as if he did not expect to be taken seriously.
‘You don’t mind living here, then – out of season, I mean?’
‘No – not at all. Indeed, that’s when I do some of my best work. There’s a kind of magic to it,’ he added, with an impish grin.
‘You don’t feel isolated?’
He smiled at that and took me outside. I have already mentioned his little ceremony with the drawbridge; now he took me round the side of the house, where a waterfall plunging down a cliff powered an ancient slow-turning waterwheel with a shaft that ran through the gable of the house.
‘I still use that to drive some of my equipment,’ he said. ‘It’s wonderfully reliable and of course it costs nothing.’
The stream that flowed past his front door came from the pool at the foot of the waterfall, but as he now showed me, there was a second branch that ran round the rear of the house.
‘The stream effectively flows across the canal,’ he told me. ‘You can see how the water runs over that concrete lip on the other side. Of course, this house was here long before the canal – it’s over four hundred years old – and in those days, the two streams joined again on this side of it’ (we had walked round to the canal side by this time) ‘ – so yes, I am isolated, if you take the word in its literal sense: my house stands on an island. Its name on old maps is Ait House. An ait or eyot is a little island.’
‘I can see why you like it here.’
‘It wouldn’t suit everyone,’ he replied, ‘but it has a lot to recommend it. Of course, you have to make sacrifices.’
It was the sort of thing that anyone might say, but it lodged in my mind, though at the time I made a joke of it. ‘Ah yes – the definition of an idyll: where someone else lives. No-one ever allows the perfection of their own place. If you mean that it gets lonely at Christmas time, I‘d be happy to come down and help you be convivial.’
His response to this startled me.
‘Don’t you dare!’ he said, with real force, then tried to back-pedal as soon as he realised what he had said. ‘What I mean is, you’d risk your neck coming here – the canal would be frozen and the road’s a death-trap even when it’s not blocked with snow – and besides, you’d find me dull company. I don’t really do Christmas.’
‘All right, then, if you don’t want me to come,’ I said.
I didn’t add that he had offered rather more excuses than seemed at all necessary; instead, I asked, ‘Do you get a lot of snow in winter, here?’
‘You’d be surprised,’ he said, glad to move away from the subject. ‘The weather here can be peculiar – quite unlike the surrounding district, even just a few miles away.’ he fell into a muse. ‘It’s the influence of the valley, I suppose,’ he added, after a time, more to himself than me.
‘You mean it has a sort of micro-climate?’ I queried.
His mind must have been running on other things: he stared at me blankly for a moment, then said, ‘Yes, that’s it – that’s just what I meant’ – though his tone suggested it was not what he meant at all.
I never did go there for Christmas, but a strong curiosity to visit that valley out of season ran like a deep current under the normal surface of my life; it often came to me in the sort of outlandish places my work took me to. I’m a man who’s knocked about the world a bit and done some things I shouldn’t, generally for money. When you’re in dark and dangerous places it’s important to have an escape, a sort of star to steer by, some sort of vision to pull you through, something to keep going for. For some men it’s a woman or a family but I never spent long enough in the places where such attachments are formed when I was young and as you get older the time for making them is past. Besides, I don’t know that I’d make a very good long-term companion for anyone, so instead I have my boat.
She’s not your usual canal boat, Amethyst – she’s steam-powered, for a start, and though handy enough for one man to manage through a lock, something about her lines suggests a life spent on less sheltered waters – those sturdy navigation lights are not what you expect on an inland waterway, and the big bow searchlight (on a mounting that might double as a gun emplacement) hints at clandestine visits to quiet coves, landing unusual cargoes or picking up irregular passengers; but that was in the past, and now, like me, she’s retired from active service.
It’s a ritual for me, going on the canal: it has to be done properly. It starts with getting away: there’s an art to that – it can’t be done abruptly. You need to put conscious distance between yourself and the world. A car is best avoided: too swift, too easy to pack too much, ‘just in case.’ Getting down from a train at a wayside halt is better, especially if you have a bicycle. Then you have had to pack your bags with care, to take only what you need, because you cannot carry much. And because the wayside halt is deserted and the train pulls away to leave you in the rural silence that is made up of a thousand tiny sounds you can fancy yourself already stepped back to an earlier age, the age when your big old-fashioned bicycle was new. And a car could not easily penetrate the narrow overhung lane that you turn down and a driver would scarcely notice the gate in the hedgerow so dilapidated and askew it surely cannot function and besides who would want to enter that narrow strip of field grown up with rusty bracken and bounded with a sombre fringe of trees?
And yet the gate does open and the foot finds a path the eye cannot see along which a bicycle can be wheeled up to that gap in the trees that might be an entrance to the wood…
The boathouse is almost drowned in a sea of ivy and creepers. You’d think it ruinous, but it’s sound enough. In summer it almost seems underwater in the subaqueous green light that filters through the trees but in the time I had given up trying to put from my mind it was November and the light had already begun to fail, so that I found my way by touch as much as sight. Inside, it is dry and weather tight. It takes time to get light because the lamps are acetylene; they started life on some grand motor-car of an earlier age. No electric here: that’s another important part of the ritual, the slipping back in time.
Canal life is strange, slow-paced: you can spend all day covering a distance you might drive in minutes in a car; a brisk walker on the towpath can overtake you. Negotiating a lock can take as long as sailing a mile, so that is the general rule of thumb for reckoning a journey – actual miles plus lock-miles. With your copy of Nicholson’s Canal Guide and a shrewd estimate of your average speed (between 3 and 4 miles per hour) you can reckon fairly accurately at the start of a day’s sailing where you will be at the end.
That matters more in November when the days are short: you need to think where you might find a mooring for the night from around four o’clock in the afternoon or even sooner, because the light fails rapidly and mooring in the dark can be a pain – more so, in fact, than sailing in the dark, if you have a big searchlight, as I did. So when my slowness in raising steam in the morning persuaded me that I was unlikely to make my intended destination in daylight that day, I checked and found that there was a full moon later. That meant that if I sailed on for a bit in the dark, I could moor by moonlight – people these days forget how bright the moon can be: you can see very well by its unaided light, once your eyes have grown accustomed to the dark.
Once realised, the idea took my fancy – the potter’s valley was a good day’s sailing at the height of summer, so I had originally planned to go half-way this time and complete the journey on the morrow; but now with the prospect of a full moon I saw that I could do the whole thing in a single trip, and the appeal of sailing by moonlight, when all the world was asleep, strengthened the notion of slipping back into the past.
Canals are resolutely unmodern: their architecture is ancient, even where it has been restored – a replacement lock-gate that is ten years old looks and works like its predecessor of two centuries before. They were built in the age of pick and shovel, when a galloping horse was the greatest speed a man might attain, and they wind through the countryside along contour lines to avoid unnecessary changes of height; even more than railways, they go around the back of things and their likeness to rivers harmonises them with nature more than any other form of transport.
In summer this music of the past makes a pleasing counterpoint with the modernity that encapsulates and overlies it: the fibreglass pleasurecraft, the other boaters with their range of competences, from the awkward hire-boat daytrippers steering with nervous smiles to the old hands who seem like fitments on their boats; the noisy beergardens and the honk of car-horns at every hump-backed bridge. It runs like a deep strain of otherness under the surface of everyday sights and sounds – like something, as Eliot puts it, ‘heard, half-heard, in the stillness between two waves of the sea.’
But now, in November, the canal had a different aspect: the leafy canopies of summer were gone and the trees stood bare and elegant, side-lit by the low sun; you could see deeper into the woods on either side. The ground was carpeted with bronze and gold. Fewer people were about, on the roads above or down below on the canal: such boats as as I saw were moored up for winter, either happed in tarpaulin, locked and shuttered, or with cosy curtains drawn and a curl of smoke going up from the stove chimney and piles of firewood stacked along the roof. The world above seemed to have gone to sleep, and down on the canal the sense of being submerged in the past was strong. Even at noon the sun struck at a low angle, creating a glare from the water and the metal surfaces of the boat that made me shield my eyes; a figure that looked in upon me as I entered a deep lock had no face, only a dark outline tinged with golden fire, and was gone by the time I scrambled up the ladder to close the gate and work the paddles.
The arm that led to the potter’s valley started in scenes of urban dereliction, old abandoned warehouses and the occasional flat-backed tower-like kiln preserved as industrial heritage among modern housing developments; it was not till the passage of a couple of swing-bridges and some fixed ones with very little headroom (for which I took the precaution of lowering the funnel) that its true character became evident. Then it swung in leisurely curves among fields till the fact of being in a valley gradually forced itself on your consciousness: you noticed that the broad flat floor was flanked – distantly, as yet – by low hills; in the middle of it, marked by a sinuous line of trees, a river was evident; beyond that, higher up, you could pick out the line of the preserved steam railway.
As the sun dropped lower, the character of the valley began to alter: the hills now were more numerous, shaped like long barrows, suggesting ancient glaciation; they seemed to crowd in, forcing the canal, the river and the railway ever closer as the valley sides grew steeper and the shadow deepened. At the same time, the sense of abandonment grew: here and there, rows of lime-kilns reared up, like the ramparts of long-forgotten fortresses; and one particular lock, dank and gloomy with a dark tunnel-like approach under a railway bridge, had landing steps green with moss, the lowest of them awash as if the lock itself was slowly sinking. I had already been up to the lock to empty it and open the gate: the railway passed close beside it, coming over the bridge that darkened the approach then running on the other side of the by-wash amid birch trees, its sleepers buried in a carpet of brown leaves. This image of human industry overwhelmed by nature made the place seem all the more desolate.
As I drove deeper into the valley the cliffs rose up on either side and soon the declining sun caught only the topmost ridge of the eastern heights; all below was cast in deep shadow. I lit the powerful searchlight and sent its beam ahead. A light mist was rising from the river that now ran close by on the left hand side; owls hooted in the woods. The valley floor grew narrower and after a time it became clear that canal, river and railway could not continue to run together but must converge. It was the canal that gave way: a narrow lock marked the point where it ended, dropping down to become a river navigation with the railway running close alongside. Beneath the foot-bridge at the lower lock-gate a gauge was painted on the wall, red above and green below; when the water has risen into the red sector, you are advised not to proceed, as dangerous conditions may exist.
It was wholly dark within the lock and when the searchlight picked out the gauge the water was risen to the top of the green, perhaps a little way into the red, but I did not hesitate: after all, I had ample reserves of power, and there was no evidence of recent heavy rain that might cause a flood. The river had a smooth, deceptive look: as soon as I entered it, I was aware of being borne along, as the current – absent from the level canal – took hold. The greater depth meant the boat went with more speed, though still leisurely enough. The search light swept the wooded banks as we swung along, at one point picking out another wall of lime-kilns agains the steep declivity on the right hand side, then some way further on, an unusual structure in a wood: a rectangular stone pillar about the size of a telephone box, with a pyramidal top and a metal door on one side – it reminded me oddly of a sanctuary of some sort, and I wondered what lay beyond the door – a set of stairs, perhaps, leading to an underground shelter.
The river was broader than the canal and had quite a different feel to it, wild and unregulated. It wound in lazy curves, the railway hemmed in beside it, running among the trees on the left; I thought what a fine thing it would be to see a steam train running so close by. I recalled that there was a station up ahead, where the canal once more departed from the river, which ran on over a weir under the arches of a bridge. The canal resumed as a branch off to the left, under a railway bridge, and between it and the river stood the station, which was built in part above the canal, one of its platforms and a waiting room being cantilevered out over the water.
By the time I reached it, the moon was up, and the station and its buildings stood out eerily bone-white, a man-made island between the still canal and the river plunging noisily over the weir. It had about it a strange air of expectancy, like an empty stage waiting for something to be enacted. Overhead, it was a fine night of stars; the sides of the valley mounted up like dark shoulders on each side and the moon shone down above the treetops – the whole had a sort of hypnotic charm about it, and I eased Amethyst in under the overhanging platform, tied her to the steel supports and clambered up to the station. Once I was there, standing among the deserted buildings, the sense of something impending was stronger than ever: in my oddly detached mood, I mused that the painted sign saying ‘waiting room’ was curiously apt – not only the little wooden building that hung over the canal but the entire station was just that.
Though I was awake and fully conscious, my state of mind was like something out of a dream – I looked at the ordinary things about me with a sense of their deep inner significance; I could not say if I actually heard it, or only imagined it vividly, but I had the impression of a sonorous chime, as if something was being announced. At the same time, I seemed to be at once where I stood (I could see the strong shadow I cast in the moonlight angling across the platform) and somehow outside myself, and the detached part of my mind recalled that this was the literal meaning of the Greek term ‘ecstasy’. Thus, I seemed to see myself as a figure standing on that moonlit stage yet at the same time I was that figure, aware of all that was going on around me.
The air above my heard seemed pregnant with sound – I can think of no other way to put it – as if, at any moment, it might break out in a chorus of some sort, whether the twittering of birds or human voices I did not know; while up ahead, beyond the station, I saw two separate points of light appear, a good distance apart. As I watched, each seemed to multiply, becoming a column of bobbing lights, and my mind formed the thought that these were two lines of torchbearers advancing towards me, one following the railway, the other the towpath which passed my friend the potter’s house – and I found myself wondering (again, with complete detachment) whether he had the drawbridge up, and if he was at his window, watching the column of torchbearers go by.
The thought that there might be witnesses to this spectacle caused me to look up to the far side of the valley, where the dark outline of a house thrust up above the trees at the very top of the cliff. A single lit window stood out brightly and I fancied there was a figure behind it, looking out, though at such a distance it was impossible to tell. I wondered if the watcher could see me far below, a dark figure on the bone-white platform. For a moment I experienced a curious transposition, and it was as if I was in the house myself, looking down on the valley from a safe height, able to gaze into it without being in it. Then from my own viewpoint on the platform I saw the window alter shape, one half becoming dark, and I knew a shutter had been closed across it; a moment later, the other side was closed too, and the window went as dark as the rest of the house.
For a second it was as if I still lingered up there and felt, like the owner of the house, that I had looked long enough. Strangely, it was that one small detail – the shuttering of the window – that brought me back to the present and a sense of my own immediate danger: from what or whom I could not tell, but I felt a powerful urge to get away. The spell was broken: I scrambled down to the boat, unmoored her, and went astern. Why I did that I cannot say: it was not a conscious decision. I had some notion (bound up, perhaps, with the idea of crossing running water) that to be safe again I would need to go back up the river navigation to the canal lock.
I soon found it was not going to be easy. In the time that I had been ashore, the river had risen considerably: I had to put on full power to keep myself off the weir, which swept under the old bridge, its arches barred with huge beams suspended on chains – I could see that these floated much higher than had been the case when I came down. It was difficult to steer going astern and made harder by the fact that I had to go across the current first then turn into it. I was aware over my shoulder that the intensity of light in the vicinity of the station had increased, but I did not look back: if I lost concentration for a moment, the boat would be swept to the weir and pinned there by the force of the water.
Inch by inch I fought her round for what seemed an age and at last her stern pointed up stream and the waters flowed past her flanks rather than driving against her side. My situation was eased, but only slightly – even with the engine on full power, progress was difficult – we clawed our way forward against the inexplicable flood. It was like fighting a living thing. At the back of my mind was the fear that I might not have sufficient fuel to maintain such a course for long, yet if I eased back I would not make any headway at all – but if I lost power before I reached the safety of the lock, I would be at the mercy of the flood. In the end, the sheer force of the current decided it for me – nothing less than full power would serve, and if it failed, it failed…
All the while I fought I was aware that there was a light at my back – I could see it reflected on the water – and, above the rush of the weir, a sound like many voices singing; the more I struggled to get away from them, the more a giant hand seemed to force me back. Time slowed, and how long we hung there, battling against the current, I could not say – it seemed like hours; when at length I risked a glance at the pressure gauge, I saw to my horror that it had begun to fall. Behind me, I heard the voices rise in climax, culminating in what seemed a single cry or shout, and in that instant the whole valley was lit as if by a lightning flash, though no thunder followed – instead the voices fell in a long, mournful wail, and as they did, the force of the water against the boat eased and we began to move steadily up the river navigation.
When I risked a backward glance, the station was in darkness. In the woods, the owls resumed. I made the lock and went up it, tied up at the lock moorings, and dog-tired, fell asleep. Next morning seemed such an ordinary day that I had few qualms about descending the lock again. The river gauge was well in the green. The station, as I passed, seemed no more than an abandoned country station, quaintly situated. At my friend the potter’s house, the drawbridge was down and the door was open; the house, as I expected, was empty.
I have not been back since. But now I am older – in the November of my life, indeed – I wonder if perhaps I was mistaken. That last cry I heard – was it terror? It might have been ecstasy. ‘You have to make sacrifices,’ my friend had said. And as the year wears on, I ponder a final out-of-season trip on the canal.