Sunday, 19 November 2017

Week 59: (13th to 19th November 2017) or 'Towed Thoughts'

Have you seen the face of Lancaster? Its two eyes are to be found at the Castle and the Cathedral, which for centuries have towered over the city and surveyed the echelons of its society. Nearby, protruding out of the city like a nasal ridge, is the bluff of Williamson Park. And there, curved into an eternal smile, is the mouth of the River Lune. The face of Lancaster is not without its blemishes, either. Like wrinkles on aged skin, the roads have multiplied and widened. Pockets of deprivation have emerged like patches of unmanaged stubble. And yet, many including myself, choose not to notice these blemishes, but solely a veteran city; the wisdom held in the eyes of a venerable retiree, who once worked to keep the North industrial, but now content on allowing new towns take charge with their fresh ideas. If the new town of Milton Keynes were to visit Lancaster, it would be like a young boy meeting his grandfather, admiring his shrewdness and senescence.

If we peel back the skin of Lancaster, we find a thin capillary that's marked on the map as the Lancaster Canal. In the 18th century, it was a major artery, linking together the limestone quarries and the coalfields so as to feed the hungry mouths of mills and workhouses throughout Lancashire and Cumbria. Little, if any, of that history remains. Once upon a time, men used to tow coal down the canal. All they seem to tow nowadays are their dogs.

If, like myself, you have ever had the privileged opportunity of spending an afternoon, musing about history with a retired grandparent, you will be aware of their instinctive desire to pluck you from your armchair and take you into the hidden cupboard of their mind where memories are stored. And as you collect more fragments of their former life, you begin to remember them not as senile or enfeebled occupants of the armchair, but youthful and dutiful forbearers, who contributed admirably towards noble causes. A saunter alongside the Lancaster Canal conjures the same atmosphere. If you follow the canal as it dives under bridges and wraps around the ankles of buildings, a story that lay dormant on the bed for 300 years, begins to awaken. The faces of those who pass you become blackened by coal. The dog being walked becomes a horse, strenuously hauling vessels of limestone. Smoke begins to rise out of chimneys and you believe, if you walk up to the castle, that a public execution may just take place.

Thus, is it this undying link to the past, to a sort of fluidic wisdom, that inspire men and women to leave the warm lounges of their homes and spend an hour or two beside this water? Away from the deafening rush of the city, a bench by the canal may well be akin to spending the afternoon sat in an armchair, enjoying the peaceful company of a retired grandparent as they narrate their stories. Or is it the fact that water opens the mind to new possibilities? On a sunlit day, when the reflections of bridges and houses are painted in the oldest mirror, the world seems that little touch larger and deeper. Whatever brings people down to the retired waters of the Lancaster Canal, one thing is for sure: it does it well.

I took my thoughts for a walk along the canal. We tunnelled through a small woodland that enjoys a suburban peace all the year round. Bathing on the opposite bank were a couple of bungalows that use the canal as a foot-spa; the toes of sloping gardens just sinking into the water. A blue sky bathed over subtle ripples. Often, a number of silvery wings would emerge up ahead; the shallow waves pulled over the surface by a convoy of ducks. But all was calm and still.

Passing through Lancaster on the canal towpath is like travelling the full length of a field through one long rabbit burrow. The city, as seen from this basement corridor, is unrecognisable, apart from the occasional flash of familiarity as the cathedral and castle float into vision. You begin to see slim boats cutting through the water and wonder what it's like to live on a floating hallway. A book is yet to be written on whether the names emblazoned on the shells of canal boats boast the truth about what happens inside. How serendipitous is the Serendipity? How celestial is the North Star? What gives the Mint Imperial its name? I would love to do a tour of the country, hopping and hitching from one canal boat to another. On the ocean, one has to accept the remoteness, but on a canal boat which flirts all the while with civilisation, how disciplined is the lifestyle? If the crew from Mint Imperial wish for custard they need only to cruise a couple of miles downstream and jump ashore. But would they?

I walked for 11 miles. The artist inside me painted a beautiful canal out of watercolours, and then as if divinely enlightened, he kept festooning it with foreground interest: a boy with his Dad's fishing line, a family cycling the banks, the Cuz I Can cruising delicately past me, and of course, bridge after bridge. Occasionally, a dull reality seeped through: a tyre at the bottom of the canal, an empty beer-can floating sorrowfully over the water, a chip cone entangled within the weeds. Litter on the banks feels, at least to me, essentially manageable but down on the murky depths of the canal bed, one stares at it feeling utterly helpless.

When you walk along the Lancaster Canal, you have one decision to make: when to stop walking along the Lancaster Canal. It is a difficult decision, for there arises out of one the incessant curiosity and desire to know what lies beyond the 'next bridge'. But the canal is a story 42 chapters long, where each mile is an exciting and beautiful chapter, enriched in history and like any great novel, it is good to pause and refresh. So that's what I did. After 11 miles, I let a finger post direct me out of this watercolour painting and back into the heart - or perhaps that should be face - of Lancaster.

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