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Reform Magazine | October 18, 2017

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On the pilgrim way: Over the hill?

Sheila Maxey’s holiday causes her to ask if she’s past it

maxeyWe are spending two weeks in a canal boat on the Grand Union canal. I have approached this holiday apprehensively. Are we not past it? Is it not time to face facts?

On the first day, my husband, blissfully forgetting we were no longer young, swung in to moor the boat and shouted to me: “Jump!” I, only too conscious of my recent back trouble, wailed: “I can’t!” On the next mooring, he jumped, missed his footing and – although he did not slip back into the canal – badly bruised both knees. And what about all those heavy double locks? He has a painful shoulder; I have to be careful with my back. By the evening, after all that fresh air and activity, we were so tired we could not even read our books.

Over the past 35 years we have spent many happy holidays on the canals – with our children when they were young, and then on our own. We used to always keep a note of how many locks done each day, and we packed as many miles and locks into the hiring time as possible. There are so many memories – Mary falling into the (at that time) filthy water of the Walsall canal; Peter jumping in to rescue a dog which could not climb out; Ruth insisting on showing off her union flag socks to every passing boat in order to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. Do we have to call it a day?

On the second day it rained and rained, and we stopped at a lovely café for at least an hour, then motored on and stopped again in a cosy pub for more than an hour. That’s more like it! As we approached a climb of seven big locks, we were relieved to find we were pairing with a boat with four strong young boys on board. They were on their grandparents’ boat and I enjoyed one of the particular delights of canalling – a good conversation with the grandfather as we steered our respective boats from lock to lock. They had brought up these boys since the youngest was two because the parents were alcoholics. A pair of unsung heroes.

On the fourth day we turned into the Leicester arm of the Grand Union, a narrow rural canal snaking its way around hills and keeping well clear of even a village. The sun came out and the hawthorn berries gleamed. We picked blackberries and made a crumble. We counted herons, not locks. Hour after hour we crept along past stubble fields, sometimes completely over shadowed by huge trees, then suddenly granted a view to a distant spire.

Some days later we arrived at the top of the Watford flight of locks to find there was a queue and a likely wait of two hours – and it did not really matter. By God’s grace, my anxious questions and even my nostalgia have been replaced by present thankfulness. And I am starting to jump ashore.

Sheila Maxey is book reviews editor for Reform

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This article was published in the November 2013 edition of  Reform.

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