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A to B: Floating nowhere in particular at four miles per hour

Alan White drifts through the British canal network. Barring some unpleasantness at a lock, it is a bucolic week.

A dog, a boat, a canal. Photograph: Getty Images

As the Oxford Canal passes Rugby, we see ghosts among the conifers and the grey flickers of out-of-town retail parks and industrial estates. We see them in bricked up tunnels, in old footpaths, in the viaduct that looms over the local golf course, in a long depression that runs through the nearby fields.

This landscape was once very different. The Leicester and Rugby Railway, the Great Central Railway and the Rugby and Stamford Railway all crossed the waterway within the space of a mile. The canal itself took a different, meandering route, veering north for a couple of miles to cross the River Swift, then looping back south to cross the River Avon. As our guidebook notes: “Paid by the mile, the contractors must have laughed all the way to the bank.”

But this was a different time. There was no need to spare expense: the canal was to be one of the most profitable transport networks in Britain, shifting masses of coal from the Midlands to London, along with some stone and agricultural products. The waterway was modernised in 1834 in response to a proposal for a London and Birmingham canal that would bypass Oxford completely. It never happened, but the Oxford company had money to burn, so it shortened the route by 11 miles with a series of embankments and aqueducts.

This “modern” route remains the same, and for the next week it will be home for the three of us. The diesel engine at the stern hums. Civilisation recedes. I light a cigarette. We're flitting between the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire borders. The landscape is verdant now, the past little more than shadows – Victorian canal company insignias on passing concrete fence posts, the crenulations of nearby fields from the ridges and furrows of mediaeval farmers, the trackbed of the old Great Central Railway hiding behind the foliage.

We’ve known each other for years. We’ve nothing important to say. One sits at the front of the boat, alone, the other two by the tiller, in silence, for hours. If we do talk, it’s quiet and terse – where we might stop, or things we can see. Occasionally, an adjective spills out, unacknowledged. “Pretty.”

Work, gossip about our other friends, the detritus of life: all recede slowly into the distance. We start drinking the whiskey once we’re a few miles out of Rugby. We’ll be encased in a soft blanket of booze every day: never quite wrecked, never quite crisp. We travel at a steady four miles per hour. Time eats distance – it takes over an hour to reach Hillmorton locks; a journey that would have taken 10 minutes by car.

***

The lock is the canal’s ingenious answer to gradients. It’s a chamber with gates at either end that either fills or empties with water according to whether the boat passing through is heading up or down the slope. We see the gates a few hundred yards up ahead. Two of us grab our wrenches, jump off the boat, and jog down the towpath, while the other cuts the engine and waits. We arrive at the gate and inspect the lock. It’s empty, so the two of us get down and begin to shove on the huge timber beam attached to the gate. It swings open, and we signal for the boat to begin its steady progress into the narrow chamber.

Once inside, we shove the gate closed, then I walk across the top of it to the opposite towpath. We make our way up to the gate at the other end. Now it’s time to fill the lock with water. We just have to walk up to the paddles on either side, attach our windlasses to the spindles, release the safety catches, and gradually raise them, allowing water from the higher level to enter the chamber. It’s a simple process, but there are plenty of things that could go wrong. The boat can catch on the lock wall, gate or cill, which would flood or even sink it. If accidentally released, the windlass can fly off the spindle: a heavy lump of metal travelling at that speed could cause a serious injury. The closed gates, which we use as a makeshift bridge, are barely a foot wide and often slippy. It can be a long drop into the chamber, and the flowing water means anyone who falls in will be not only cold, but less buoyant.

None of these things are likely. But if you work the locks enough – and we will, at least a few dozen times in the course of this trip - you know it’s a good idea to have your wits vaguely about you. It’s on our third day that something goes wrong. We arrive at a lock to find a middle-aged lady already in the process of emptying it so her boat, piloted by her husband, can pass in the opposite direction to us.

Women like her are one of many peculiar elements of canal life. You’ll see many retired couples. Typically, they’ll own an opulent boat that’s their pride and joy, and will be accompanied by a small dog. In every single case the man will drive the boat, while the woman - never a day under 50 - will do the heavy physical labour of the lock work. On our boat there are two of us working the locks, both in our thirties, and we’re exhausted at the end of every day. These women never seem perturbed by the bizarre division of labour. It’s just how it’s done on the canals.

This woman is typical of her kind - small, wirily strong, and accompanied by a border collie that seems only slightly more energetic than her. We exchange small talk: the only kind you can have at a lock. Generally, you ask where someone’s stopping. Then you ask what’s there, even though you know. I cross to the other side of the canal and get to work on the other paddle.

The problem starts once we’ve emptied the lock and are beginning to open the gates to allow her husband out. He nods a gruff acknowledgement. He doesn’t like us. We’re too young, and our card is marked by the fact we’re driving a hire boat rather than one we own. As the gate begins to swing open, the woman’s dog takes a sudden liking to me. It runs to the end of the lock and onto the gate just as it begins to move. Suddenly, what was a bridge is now a 15-foot-drop into an ice cold canal with a boat weighing at least a dozen tons powering through it.

The dog looks ahead to see its walkway disappear, and digs its claws into the top of the gate, cowering. The woman begins to scream. The man begins to shout something, but his voice is drowned out by the engine. The dog looks up at me, tensing its legs as it gets ready to jump across to my side of the bank. He won’t make it - with every millisecond that passes, the gap from gate to bank is getting wider.

I scream: “Stay!” and hold my hand up, desperate the dog will do as it’s told. It feigns to jump, but instead remains on the gate, shivering. “Stay!” “Stay!” The boat passes. I frantically heave against the gate’s timber beam to close it. The dog scampers across to me and wags its tail as if nothing has happened. The woman runs over and thanks me, curtly. She thinks I accidentally called the dog over to me, but doesn't want to say anything.

I suspect her thanks would have been curt regardless. We’ve broken the rules of the canal by involving her in a situation for which more was called than basic social interaction. There’s a strange, almost oriental formality to the exchanges that take place around the locks. It’s not that people on the canal are unfriendly. It’s that there’s a mutual understanding they’ve chosen this place because they want to escape everything else.

You have the retired couples, of course - and the more you travel the more you begin to pick out the subtle variations in wealth and class. More middle class generally means a more homely boat: there’ll be a garden growing on the roof, and a kitchen festooned with pictures of their offspring. Copy of the Mail somewhere. Upper-middle class generally means a more nautical vibe. Lots of bottles of wine on board, matching sweaters draped over the handrail; a boat name, hand painted in gold, like “Serenity” or “Wind Dancer”. I’ve seen an HMS before. They take the Telegraph.

Most of these people are on holiday. But then you have the other crowd: the full timers. And these are really interesting. The most recognisable subset is the ageing hippies. Their boat will be decorated with some Roger Dean-style purples and greens that make it look like the cover of a prog rock album. The unmistakably sweet smell of weed will waft from the boat’s innards, along with the squeals of Electric Ladyland. It’s a laughable cliché, but you barely remark on it after a day or two.

***

Of more interest are the other main breed of full time dwellers. They’re constantly on the move: many of them will only be allowed to stay in one spot for 14 days, unless they have permission from the local authority. They’re hard to pin down in other ways. They look rather like the middle class retirees, but they’ve turned feral. The beautifully-kept roof garden will be replaced by piles of firewood and fuel drums. Scruffy, basic clothes will be clustered on a miniature washing horse nearby. They look rather more bedraggled than their hippy counterparts.

And in a way, they’re more interesting than the genuine mysteries we glimpse on the water - the shady looking guys who look like old school crooks; the man we glimpse through his window surrounded by dozens of laptops and hard drives, whom we can only imagine is something to do with GCHQ; the narrow boat that’s been designed to look like a naval warship - those are mysteries that have a rational solution, of some kind.

No: for these relatively normal couples, the mystery is more human. They really have left society behind: for many long stretches the canal runs along the bottom of fields and is barely accessible to the public on foot, let alone by car. At what point did they say to themselves: this is it? Rare visits to any kind of shop that isn’t a post office store or located in the back of a pub, no neighbours, minimal water and electricity – it’s as basic an existence as one could choose, one chosen by an estimated 50,000 people in Britain, and entirely unnoticed by the rest of the country. Theirs is a quieter, gentler existence, utterly detached from the clamour of modern life.

And that’s why there’s this enforced formality and it’s why all these subcultures interact just fine on the occasions they run into each other: the deeply conservative retirees, the hippies, the full timers – not to mention us – because they all have one thing in common. Something about society has repulsed them – if in our case only momentarily – and they want escape. They may not see eye-to-eye on anything else, but they do on that, and it’s enough.

At the village of Braunston we’re confronted with the only choice of direction we will have all journey. The junction is the meeting point of two main arteries - the Grand Union, which runs towards Birmingham, and the canal we’re on, heading south to Oxford. Two hundred years ago this would have been a bustling intersection, with a steady flow of steamers and horse drawn boats. Today it’s an unremarkable little village, though it still boasts a crowded marina and a few boat building yards. It’s the busiest place we’ll see until we return to Rugby.

Four hours further on, and the canal snakes round to the left, around the base of Napton Hill. It’s a stunning sight. A view is no more than a perspective; but ours is unique. The emerald mound looms high, dappled with sunflowers and, perched on its crest, we can just make out a recently-restored windmill. We roll around its circumference, and moor up. The low sun sears the sky blood red as it dips below the horizon. We prepare a barbeque as a chill begins to gather in the evening air and the stars blink into life. This journey is all about tomorrow.

We rise early, and hurry through Napton’s locks. After a couple of hours we’re through: we’ve reached the canal’s summit. For eleven miles now, we’ll drift through the last ebbs of the morning mist, first past fields and flocks of sheep, then heavy vegetation punctuated only by red brick footbridges. Every hour or so a boat might pass; otherwise, we won’t see another soul. We see every blossom and field in high definition, yet the progress will be so slow and the sights so unrelentingly rural that the gradual changes in the scenery barely register. It's with a sudden, tender shock that you realise a line of foliage has been supplanted by a never ending horizon of fields. There are no historical shadows, no potential pubs or shops at which to stop. Our phones have been switched off since the day began: an unspoken rule. Anything could have happened in the outside world. There is silence.

We’re alone, together. In response, my mind conjures a buzz of static: the words in a break up letter (“That’s the paradox, of course: the pain hurts; the anaesthetic more so. One by one, each of those little curios disappears from my mind. What did we do together on your birthday last year? I know we did something good, I’m sure of it, but what was it again? Every day, a little bit more of the picture disappears forever. And here I am like some put-upon tenant when the bailiffs come round: please, let me keep this one, let me keep that one.”), then somehow the chord progression in an old song (A minor goes to C goes to D goes to F7 goes back to Ami and then it’s C then E7 or Ami to E and back, or is it…), and now it’s the flight of a cricket ball with leg spin applied to it and…

And suddenly the chattering fades. My mind slows to a crawl. There is nothing but the imperative to drift ever onwards, past sights unseen, around the same curve, again and again. It's a calm I won't experience again all year. I came here for nothing.

This post is part of A to B, the New Statesman's week of pieces on travel and transport.

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