Trains, gasometers, boats and bikes

Boatwif and the Captain had driven south on Friday afternoon to weekend with friends in West Sussex. Slowly we made our way down the M1 (more widening works for miles and miles), round the M25 and down the A24 to Horsham.

    On Saturday morning we were heading north again – by train. Names from our address book sped by: Redhill and East Croydon. There were glimpses of aeroplanes at Gatwick and of the North Downs at Three Bridges.  Into gasometer-packed South London we rolled, through Clapham Junction, past famous landmarks at Battersea, the Power Station and the Dogs and Cats Home, over the River Thames and into Victoria. An expensive penny spent, 30p per person (40p in my case as 5p coins aren’t acceptable coinage) we headed then via tube trains to King’s Cross. Maps and a London A-Z were deployed; with the joint skills of a one-time pilot, a one-time navigator, a one-time WRAF officer and a retired teacher we groped our way past massive hoardings, earthworks and a gasometer undergoing deconstruction*, up and down a few streets to our destination, the London Canal Museum.  Nearby stood a bright and very green plastic grass covered car. The Museum gates were securely shut.  The key-holder herself was trapped somewhere underground during Saturday’s planned tube line closures but a cheery Museum staff member was stationed outside.  (Non-canal enthusiasts/non-readers of the waterways press might wish to skip now to the next paragraph). Our informant’s credentials were excellent: born into a working canal boat family, last week she was up at Stoke Bruerne for a meeting attended by Tim Coughlin of Braunston, David Blagrove and Sonia Rolt, all very well known Waterway Names. She helpfully directed us back to the canal (the Regent’s Canal, that is) and onward to Camden Lock.

    It was about a fifty minute stroll westward along the towpath, past St Pancras Lock and on to the three locks at Camden. The path was only occasionally wet or muddy, and much frequented by joggers and cyclists, but by very few dogs and dog walkers. We passed a few moored boats – and then one manoeuvring at St Pancras Cruising Club. There were hints of spring indicated by boisterous activity between ducks and occasional signs of early budding on trees. We passed a colourful bridge mural, through a short tunnel and noticed the deep towing rope notches on the metal reinforcing strips. Far from the frenzy of London transport hubs and shopping centres this was a quiet watery passageway between old buildings, many remodelled for modern purposes. Then at Camden we climbed up to colour and bustle, a multitude of sounds and smells. Two great stone lions overlooked Camden Lock. Small booths and stalls displayed craft ware, clothing, pictures, textiles – far too great a variety of items to even begin to register them all. Food stalls enticed the eye and the appetite: foods from Poland, Peru, West Africa, China, the Caribbean and endless more exotic locations. But our second mission (the first, the Canal Museum, having eluded us) was a restaurant called Gilgamesh, on the corner of Chalk Farm Road, for lunch. Huge figures from Babylonian mythology were mounted in relief around the walls. An enormously long bar (reputedly the longest in the world) stretched around the vast space. Brass troughs, not individual basins, and an ornate chair were surprise features in the cloakrooms. We shared Dim Sum, 12 separate delicacies, a particularly tasty one being prawn and banana oriental rolls, beaten only by the Son-in-Law’s Eggs, gently fried eggs inside a tangy chilli-topped batter… What flavours, what surroundings, what service!

     Lunch done, we returned to street level, squeezing through the crowds of Saturday shoppers, all either browsing or grazing – or both! Next mission for our boat- enthralled party was an excursion by waterbus. A good-looking boat it was, with conventional forward-facing bus-type seats and broad sliding windows.
“How old is she?” enquired the Captain.
“Built in 1947,”came the reply.
“Same age as me – and wearing better too!” acknowledged the Captain.

    From Camden Lock along the Regent’s Canal to Little Venice, a fifty minute forward float, past glorious white stuccoed Nash houses, past the Regent’s Park mosque, past the Snowdon Aviary at London Zoo, through the Maida Hill Tunnel, to a widening of the canal, boats moored on both sides, to the open expanse of water that surrounds Browning Island. We clambered out, observed the junction to the Grand Union, then turned and walked the length of the Paddington Arm.  It felt like a 3D atlas cum Google terrain map, the double decker Westway A40 flyover, deep excavations behind the Paddington Railway Station, the back of St Mary’s Hospital, two tall statues of working men, a small outdoor performance space, the HQ of  M&S, old canalside warehousing, a British Waterways information boat: the area just sizzled with visual stimuli – and a young man on a  ten foot wide boat motored past and turned his boat round.

    One further surprise: we emerged from the back of the hospital to see a row of “Boris’s bikes”, neatly caged to their stands. Too late now to make a second attempt to visit the Canal Museum so we burrowed back underground: Paddington to Oxford Circus; Oxford Circus to Victoria.  And Victoria back to Horsham. Not for us the dilemma as to whether to board Coaches 1-4 (for Portsmouth) or Coaches 5-8 (for Bognor Regis) as the train was to split at Horsham…

* Gasometers store gas.  Not so at King’s Cross. We came across a large artist’s impression showing how the dismantled gasometer will be replaced by a huge and elegant circular apartment block, on completion its girders added as reference to its earlier industrial character.

    So often had the train’s computerised voice explained which coaches were to be travelled in for which destination I pondered whether many folk indeed choose to go to Bognor Regis.
Portsmouth we had seen, several times, but never Bognor. Hence, a good brunch digested and raincoats piled into the car boot, we set off (in a south- south-westerly direction).

    Bognor: first stop April Cottage, an address of one-time significance to our friends. In steady wind-blown rain Bognor seemed a bleak place, with a concrete reinforced esplanade, a short pier, unbusy hotels and a crashing sea.  We drove a little further west and stopped at Pagham, a beach area with children’s holiday club, yacht club and beach cafe.  Cleddau‘s frequent First Mate visitor joined me as we slogged into wind up onto the beach.   Long stretches of shingle bank lay to east and west, groynes marched out into the foaming sea, sharp rain penetrated the flesh of our cheeks: it was a wild and wet scene and in unheard-of haste we retreated to the cafe, disturbing the gentle chit-chat between Captain and our frequent relief Captain. The café had plain laminate-topped tables, served simple fare but was a riot of signs and memorabilia. As we steamed over hot drinks our eyes darted from Elvis Presley to Marilyn Monroe to Laurel and Hardy to ancient gramophone… No boats to blog about but this little place, brimming with witty sayings and amusing ornaments, was a find indeed…

    Home: no boats, just aeroplanes climbing out and turning, first from Gatwick, then from Heathrow, then from
Luton. For us a fast whizz in good weather – until whatever incident caused a long crawl towards Junction 12 of the M1, a cross- country drive past Flitwick and Millbrook and a descent to Marston Vale.

    We drove along the now empty, now “old” road back towards our village.  Will one day we drive alongside (or future generations float along) the long-planned (in 1811) Milton Keynes to Bedford Canal…?

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