Comment: Remembering my water-gypsy ancestors

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Beneath the trailing branches of a weeping willow tree, boat-master Mark stands, clip board in hand, calling out the names of his passengers for the day. Queuing politely, one by one, little groups step forward and board the narrow boat. Mark pauses to welcome each guest with a smile, and his assistant Gayle, warns us to mind our heads as we descend the five wooden steps down into the body of the barge.

As the midday sun heats the air, a luminous light creates a hot fuzzy haze over the surrounding countryside. England’s distinctive greens gleam pleasantly against a turquoise sky. It is this striking colour combination, enhanced by a watery Turner-esque sort of light and shadow, which pulls phone cameras out of pockets. It’s enthralling. Everyone is taking photos. Like we’re seeing things for the first time.

Under Mark’s careful hand, the old coal barge glides along the canal, moving just a smidge slower than some walkers on the tow path. An abundance of vegetation lines the embankment, water lilies are momentarily submerged and tall green blades bow down gracefully in the rolling wake of the boat. Every now and then the hypnotic scrolling scene is interrupted by a gaggle of baby ducklings paddling quickly atop the water as they try to catch up with Mummy.

Up on deck Mark points to a pile of chunky, sliced tree trunk on the bank: “Last week that tree fell right across the canal and blocked our path completely, we had to get the passengers off the boat and have them picked up by coach.” He tugs his cap and chuckles: “I towed the boat back up the canal, all the way to the marina!” He seems quietly pleased that his normally uneventful journey was interrupted by a victorious mini-drama.

Thin sandwich triangles and volcanic jam scones are served on a ceramic cake stand adorned with painted pink roses. In an unhurried fashion two smiling ladies serve us tea, coffee and fizz. Everything is mesmerizingly slow; the boat; the water; the service; the pace; the chatter; my thoughts. A tinny radio plays familiar northern soul tracks, playful children wander up and down. The underside of a low stone bridge draws a small crowd of passengers onto the small front and rear decks. They comment on the quality of the bridge’s workmanship, but the sight sends a shiver down my spine.

I’m reminded that my great uncle was crushed when he accidentally slipped between his boat and the side of a bridge such as this. Several days passed before he died. I try to imagine what life must have been like for him and my great-grandparents who lived and worked on a canal boat similar to this one. On a warm summer’s day, in capable hands, on a well cared for boat, it feels oh so safe and civilised. In this comfortable re-imagined construct I can’t begin to understand the level of treachery and risk my ancestors endured. And perhaps I don’t have to. Perhaps they wouldn’t want me to. Perhaps they would just want me to raise a glass to them and experience the magic of a safe, slow, sail, drenched in vibrant colour and sunshine.

Main Photo Credit: James Homans via Unsplash

Val Fraser

Val Fraser is a trained journalist with over 12 years’ experience working on staff in various demanding media environments. She has authored/edited thousands of articles including news, travel and features. Val has authored/contributed to nine non-fiction books. A regular columnist, she stepped up to the role of Digital Editor in September 2022 and is responsible for the Sorted Magazine website.
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