On Board
Narrowboat "FRILFORD"
(British Waterways No. 500645)


CHAPTER THIRTEEN - "Set Adrift, Sporting TV and Traffic Lights"

Early July 2005

I got set adrift in Mirfield. At least I think I was. I’m not entirely sure.

When I boarded FRILFORD and set off on my little odyssey I brought with me rather more of my foibles that I’d planned to. I have always been beset by certain actions and experiences which do not stand close scrutiny. I had hoped to leave them on the bank as I slipped FRILFORD’s moorings in Abingdon on 21st March 2005. I didn’t. One of the most annoying things has been a feeling of general insecurity about being on board FRILFORD at night. For me night it not a good time. I have always been nervous of the dark and, even though I am now firmly established in my middle years, I still am! Couple this with my insomnia and we have the makings of difficult times once the lights go out. The worst times are when one is not quite asleep but not quite awake either. How many times have I reared up in bed in a panic, heart thumping, breath coming in short, strangulated gasps? Many, many times. And what worries me? Legions of things, none of which make sense. The other night I leapt up with a start, heart thumping, paused for a moment, then swung my legs out of bed and started frantically opening FRILFORD’s doors – bow, stern and side doors. The cold night air rushed in and only when I was distinctly chilly did I relax enough to close all the doors and go back to bed. The problem the other night was that I’d convinced myself that someone, maybe me, had screwed all the doors tightly shut and that I was sealed into FRILFORD. Claustrophobia is another of my things and I, whilst I do not actually feel in the least bit claustrophobic on board FRILFORD in normal circumstances, at night I always want to assure myself that I can get off her if I want to. I think she is going to capsize with me sealed inside.

Another thing that used to worry me, although I have been better about this of late, is the fear of being set adrift at night. A canal tow path is a public place and when one is in built-up areas the canal, and thus the towpath, passes beside car parks, town centres, small parks, factory back yards etc etc. There are people there. There is never any trouble – well, almost never; every canal boater has a story of ‘interaction’ with ‘the public’ but these incidents are very rare. Being set adrift is not something I worry about at all, except at night when everything is different. Many are the nights I have heard a sound from outside, ignored it for a few minutes, then jumped out of bed to peer out of a porthole to check that the scene outside is still as I left it when I moored for the night. It always is, of course, but this does not stop me noticing the sounds and checking through portholes. All this whilst most normal people would be asleep to awake refreshed hours later to greet a new day.

I was tied up on the British Waterways 48 hour moorings in Mirfield on a Friday night, and as everywhere in the UK these days, the youth element were mobilizing for a Big Night Out. I don’t know, because I did not check the place out myself, but I suggest that Mirfield does not have too much for the ‘young adults’ to do, aside from hanging around the pubs or getting blasted on under-age-affordable cheap booze in car parks and dimly lit streets. The mooring is next to a service road which seems to skirt various small industrial units but must lead to or from somewhere significant because all manner of people passed that way. At knocking-off time there were blokes in blue overalls, some walking, some on bicycles, some in aging saloon cars which once would have been rather fancy. Even a couple of rather attractive young women riding a couple of nicely turned-out horses (where on earth had they come from? Actually, where were they going? They were riding out of town…). Before long, though, the lads and lassies were on the move. Football shirts, baseball caps, baggy jeans worn low on the hips, arse hanging down. Trainers, trainers; always the trainers. Both the lads and the lassies. Later the lassies made more effort… tiny tops, tiny skirts or tight, tight jeans, crazy heels, exotic hair, dangly earrings, piercings, navels, breasts, thighs, curious handbags housing the weapons of juvenile seduction, and attitude… The lads responded to this. They got louder, showing off to the lassies. They made sarcastic, but hopeful advances, got rebuffed in a don’t-stop-trying sort of way and celebrated or compensated by rushing at their mates and attacking them, or performed a show-dance of stylised football moves, all the while moving, caravan-like, towards the frustratingly dim lights of Mirfield. Somewhere in town, close to the canal, there was a party. The music started about ten pm and coloured the night.

I turned in at about midnight. There had not been many kids around for some time, apart from, now and again, the odd couple of youngsters in hoods carrying a football, too young to party. Soon afterwards a noise got me out of bed and checking through a porthole. My view of the factory was obscured by a lad and lassie fumbling furiously close by. I say furiously… I’m not sure what he did but something made her furious and he had to quickly move into a routine which wasn’t apologising but rather a form of words to get him back to the point of last successful configuration. It worked and within moments her just-lit Marlboro Light was extinguished in favour of other stimulation.

Whether it was them or not I didn’t know but sometime later I heard another sound and I tensed up in bed again. I lay there for a few minutes and heard another sound – similar but different. The sounds were coming from FRILFORD’s roof. By this time I was sufficiently awake that I was telling myself not to be so stupid as to check through a porthole again. ‘Just one of your foibles,’ I was telling myself. Maybe, but I could not stop myself looking. The furious young couple had gone. The factory was still there, but, wait a minute – it was in the wrong place! It was a still night and everything was calm, save for the music still thumping away from somewhere close in town, but the factory had moved. I pulled on a shirt, pushed open the rear doors and got out on deck. FRILFORD was across the other side of the canal, about opposite where I’d tied her, stuck under a tree. The branches held my ‘bike, my flower pots and the odds and sods I have on deck, and those were the sounds I’d been hearing. My mooring lines hung down uselessly fore and aft.

I was perfectly calm. The situation was not difficult and certainly not dangerous. It was a very still, warm night and the canal was very flat. Had it been otherwise I wonder where I would have ended up? Probably stuck across the bridge which was just behind me, or jammed between the boats moored a little further away. As it was I was being cradled by a large tree and was perfectly alright. I retrieved my mooring lines, started the engine and made a short positioning voyage back across the canal! I reattached my mooring lines, which were still made off on FRILFORD, to the same mooring bollards, checked that everything on the roof was alright, chucked a few twigs and the odd small branch off the roof into the canal and had a good look round. There was no-one about, although across the way, unseen, the party was still pumping up the volume. It was 1.30 in the morning.

I went down below lay on my bed and stayed awake the rest of the night listening for any slightest sound, feeling for the slightest movement. There were none. Nothing. As with all night-time dramas, always imagined apart from this incident, relief comes with the dawn. As the flat grey light of a new day filled my portholes I slipped into a shallow, restless sleep. I was a little alarmed, but only a little. One of my imagined fears had been realised but in such a gentle, benign sort of way that I experienced a sort of modest catharsis. If nothing else I now had an ‘interaction’ story of my own. I tried it out on the couple I’d come down the river with when they passed me later in the morning. “Alright?” they hailed.

“Sort of,” I replied, “but I had an incident in the night – I was set adrift and ended up in those trees over there…”

“Nnnnooooo…!” they exclaimed, “well, it can happen, but we’ve never heard of that around here….”

Their hint of doubt (I sensed they thought I’d not moored FRILFORD properly and had created this situation myself) burnished a little thought in me that nagged and would not go away. The thought is this: I am prone to these irrational night worries which cause me to get up and do seemingly odd things to sort out imaginary but, at the time, very real, crises. Is it possible I got up, sleepwalking effectively, and set myself adrift? The next morning I couldn’t help wondering if that’s actually what happened! It didn’t stop me writing a letter to The Clerk of the Town Council saying I was disappointed in his town, or ‘phoning British Waterways in Castleford to warn them that, perhaps, the moorings at Mirfield are a bit unsafe, but, to this day, I wonder if I did it myself!

Anyway, having made my ‘phone call and written and posted my letter I got going. In truth I was not going very far. I wanted to get out of Mirfield but then stop to watch a few hours of sport on the TV. It was Ladies Finals Day at Wimbledon and, before that, qualifying for the French F1 Grand Prix. A couple of miles out of Mirfield, close to Shepley Bridge Lock, I found a place with good TV reception and enjoyed Fernando Alonso put himself on pole position for the Grand Prix and watched, rather than enjoyed (it was a strange match – the longest in Ladies Final’s history – with Lindsay Davenport showing early prowess only to be struck down with back problems and eventually losing to Venus Williams, who, rumour has it, is or was bored with tennis and wanted to do something else), a fine tennis player who wanted to win lose to a once-fine tennis player who wasn’t bothered, apparently.

After the match the weather was threatening. A great purple cloud reared up from nowhere and threatened to throw rain down upon us. In the event there were only a few drops so I fired up FRILFORD and made way through Shepley Bridge Lock, Greenwood Lock and the Thornhill Double Locks. Again I was on a ‘canalised’ river in places and FRILFORD moved along beautifully in deeper, smooth water. At Thornhill Locks, which are a picturesque couple of locks with a small elliptical pound between them, I was hailed boisterously by a couple coming the other way. They were working the bottom lock as I was working the top lock. “Alright?” they yelled. “Didn’t expect to see you here…. What you doing? Whose boat is that – have you nicked it….?! Ha ha….!” I really didn’t recognise them at all but made awkward, constrained, Englishman-type waved responses, as you do. The woman walked round the pound to where I was. “Oh, sorry,” she said, “you’re not who we thought you are….! Ha ha…!” A chance comment like this could fire off huge convoluted angst begging the question: Then Who Am I? - but I did not get into that then, and I am not getting into it now! I passed the chap on the other boat in the pound. “Sorry mate, thought you were my mate Rick. You look just like him….!” Big smile, salute with an empty beer can (one of a large set, I think!) and he was gone into the top lock. They were having a good Saturday, clearly.

I locked out through the bottom lock, opted not to take the short arm up to Dewsbury, despite the lure of Dewsbury’s best kept secret: “the whereabouts of the Sunset Cider & Wine Company and their regular exploits (see below)”. Don’t see below, in fact, because I was quoting from the one of the excellent Nicholson Guide to the Waterways (Book 5, top of page 43 as it happens) in which, despite their “(see below)” I can find no further reference to the Sunset Cider & Wine Company and their regular exploits. A well kept secret indeed! I tied up just past the arm.

The next day was another fine sporting day on the TV. I don’t want you to think I am a slave to the TV on this trip. I’m not, and you will have heard very little, if any, reference to TV before this chapter, but I do enjoy all sorts of sport from the comfort of some sort of chair and today, Sunday 3rd July, brought with it Alonso winning the French Grand Prix, on his way to winning the F1 Drivers’ Championship for 2005 it later became evident, and Roger Federer beating Andy Roddick in straight sets in the Men’s Final at Wimbledon.

Just before 5.00 pm I started FRILFORD and moved off, going through Mill Bank Lock, Figure Three top lock and bottom lock before eventually stopping just before Broad Cut Top Lock, a couple of miles or so south-west of Wakefield. Again the canal had been deep and quite broad and, although I’d only done just short of four miles in the day, I’d done it at an average speed (data from my GPS!) of 3.4 mph, which is ridiculously slow in our busy ‘normal’ lives, but is really rather swift in canal transit terms!

I’d tied up by a grassy bank and an attractive copse of trees. I was still in a peri-urban environment and a few lads in baseball caps and trainers (of course) ambled by, but the setting was peaceful and, I reckoned, a good base from which to set off the next day for what I expected to be several interesting and increasingly-different days. As I was finishing adjusting the mooring lines (and there are a couple of people who have been with me on FRILFORD who have suggested – nay, stated – that I am rather OC [obsessive compulsive] when it comes to mooring lines. Yes, I do tend to fiddle about with them rather, when other people bang a stake into the ground, throw a rope over it and leave well alone, but there we are. The same people think I’m rather OC about other aspects of my life on FRILFORD too; the thing is, I know they are right!) a young couple came up to me with enquiring looks in their faces. “Excuse me,” said the very attractive young woman, “is it right to call these boats barges? My boyfriend calls them that but I don’t think that’s right!” We had a friendly chat about barges, canal boats, narrowboats and even longboats, which I always tell people are what the Vikings sailed to America in rather than used on the canals of England, and I invited them on board for a look around. They seemed delighted. They wouldn’t accept a cup of tea or a drink or anything, but did spend really quite a long time looking at everything and asking questions. The young woman in particular seemed much taken with what she saw. “I wish I could stay on board,” she said rather determinedly and I wished she could too, but of course I didn’t say so! Boyfriend looked embarrassed, then smiled and said they had to go. Which they had to, before I said anything I, and anyone else involved, would be bound to regret.

The next day, the Fourth of July – look out for low-flying Americans! – rain beat a steady tattoo upon FRILFORD’s roof but had gone by noon, so I set off for Wakefield and beyond. A friend of mine with whom I used to work called to ask after me and ask where I was. “I’ll be going through Wakefield later today,” I told her. “Good heavens – I was born in Wakefield!” she exclaimed and suggested I stop to do this, that and the other. In the event I doffed my cap in its general direction and thought of my friend as I passed through. With the best will in the world Raysons don’t do stopping unless it’s their idea!

I was right about things getting interesting and different. I was on the River Calder during the day, and moving in an urban environment. Things were bigger and stronger, and river traffic included industrial barges. At Wakefield I could have gone passed Wakefield Flood Lock on the river and tied up in what I understand is an impressive new development made out of the old once long-abandoned riverside warehouses. In the event I turned sharp right (okay – hard to starboard!) through Wakefield Flood Lock and on to Fall Ing Lock. Dropping down in Fall Ing Lock is a bit like falling. According to the book it is only 9’3” deep but it is a big, old lock with heavy paddles and gates and it feels bigger. In addition it spits you out onto the Aire and Calder Navigation which is a big canal which made me sit up a bit. There is a section shortly after Wakefield which is dead straight for a couple of miles. FRILFORD pushed on powerfully, if one can say that about a 49 ft, 11.5 tonne steel boat with a 36 bhp diesel engine. The straight passes through Broadreach Lock, which is a flood lock and was open. However, for the first time I experienced the ‘traffic light’ system used on commercial waterways. Red, Amber and Green. I remembered reading something about this but as I approached the amber light showing on Broadreach Lock I couldn’t remember specifically what it all meant but thought I’d work it out. It’s actually obvious and, anyway, there was a large board up to remind me. Red means stop and wait for instructions from the lockkeeper, Green means you have right of way and Amber means the lock is unattended but the navigation is open. Proceed with caution observing and responding to the movement of others. Something like that. In other words do what you’d do if there was no traffic light system!

I proceeded on Amber; there was no other traffic around. Broadreach Lock is a harbinger of locks in this part of the navigation. Large, very large, and electro-hydraulically operated. Proceeding through Broadreach Lock was like passing through a dock rather than a lock. Big stuff. I stopped at the BW Sanitary Station at Ramsden Bridge to pump out my slurry tank, but I had run out of the cards one needs to insert into the meter and the man at Stanley Ferry Marina said something about being under new management and they were fresh out of pump-out cards. I looked around. I am sure the place works well normally, but that day, under new management, it looked a bit like something out of the film Apocalypse Now. Things were happening but what was happening and the people making them happen were a little unsettling. FRILFORD and I got out of there.

Birkwood Lock was the first of the electro-hydraulic locks I actually had to operate. It was showing Amber. The lock is big enough to take some very hefty craft and FRILFORD was dwarfed in there. Later, much later, I was to come across a couple of locks on the run up to Leeds which made this lock look like a bathtub, but more of that in due course! I sorted out how to operate the thing and, in the execution of same, discovered that the process is very straight forward and designed not to allow mistakes. I immediately got a bit of a renewed taste for electro-hydraulic locks. I’d not seen one since the Lower Reaches of the River Thames. Why crank windlasses and shove heavy beams back and forth when one can turn a key press a couple of buttons and listen to heavy machinery whirring away in the background? Marvellous. The canal the other side of Birkwood Lock is very matter-of-fact. It is banked up on either side and runs through the flood plain of the River Calder just to its left-hand side. The ground is generally flat and, on the day I passed this way, it was only the layers of grey clouds in what seemed to be an awfully big sky, which gave the scene some topography.

The wind got up and was blowing hard left to right across my bows. I was feeling like I’d had enough for the day. I stopped above Kings Road Lock (showing Amber!) with a view to staying the night there. However, although there was another boat moored there, it seemed very exposed. I walked to the other side of Kings Road Lock and realised there was a bit of a basin there with both residential and visitors moorings. Despite the wind and the size of the thing it was the work of only several long moments to get FRILFORD through the lock and onto the moorings. Beyond were Castleford, the River Aire, Fairburn Ings, Ferrybridge Power Stations, the River Aire again, the 2012 Olympic Bid and more. For now, however, I was finished.

Interesting days ahead.