This episode is dedicated to my pair of walking boots who has shared life with me for nearly 45 years (and both of us are still going strong). We have walked miles together. Where have they taken me and to what (and to whom) will they take me in the future?
24th February, Friday
“The jackdaws' chant hangs
Among the eaves of the ancient wood.
Aconite, anemones, and ransoms,
Green spears among rich leaf mould.
A church on a hill
Swims among deep drifts
A sky lark sings in mizzly rain.”
There are some old photographs featuring my ‘lumberjack’ shirt and desert boots, as well as some early backpacking pictures on the NoSWPod page for this episode.
With special thanks to our lock-wheelersfor supporting this podcast.
In the intro and the outro, Saint-Saen's The Swan is performed by Karr and Bernstein (1961) and available on CC at archive.org.
Two-stroke narrowboat engine recorded by 'James2nd' on the River Weaver, Cheshire. Uploaded to Freesound.org on 23rd June 2018. Creative Commons Licence.
Piano and keyboard interludes composed and performed by Helen Ingram.
All other audio recorded on site.
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24th February, Friday
“The jackdaws' chant hangs
Among the eaves of the ancient wood.
Aconite, anemones, and ransoms,
Green spears among rich leaf mould.
A church on a hill
Swims among deep drifts
A sky lark sings in mizzly rain.”
This is the Narrowboat Erica narrowcasting into the darkness of a bitter February night to you wherever you are.
There is a raw northerly wind with a bite of the east in it blowing tonight. The moon is filling towards the quarter. In the west the bright sparkle of Jupiter and Venus - although they are playing catch-me-if-you-can with the smoky rags of clouds that race and plunge southwards.
I am really pleased that you could make it. Come inside and into the warm beside the fire. It is toasty in here and the kettle is on. Make yourself at home and welcome aboard.
The wind today has been particularly raw and cutting. From time to time, it slams into the boat, stern on. The fleeting sun is warm (out of the wind), but during the day the clouds were piling up. The sky has become a raceway – criss-crossed with birds. Nest building is in earnest. Crows, pigeons, and jackdaws shuttling to and fro with twigs clamped between their beaks. Yesterday, I heard my first skylark of the season – peppering the fields with his tumble of notes. The geese seem to be gathering too. Flying in larger and larger flights. I am not sure if it is in preparation for their spring flight home and they can hear the north calling or whether they are just reading the weather.
A couple of times this week, Donna has had to chase a duck off the roof. There’s a small spot between our two solar panels which seems to be the attraction for her. It would actually make a hopeless nest, vulnerable to any predating bird and also the egg would simply roll down to the runnels along the roof as soon as she moved. As far as I can tell, she is actually one of the first ducks in the immediate vicinity to be seriously looking for nesting places and so there are plenty much more natural and much more appropriate sites for her to use. It is usually those ducks, late in the season when all the good nesting sites are being used, that are forced to look for less suitable locations. So, I am not sure why she isn’t going for them first.
The swans are back. As is often the case, almost within the hour of the last episode being uploaded, I looked out and there they were, gliding along with not an apparent care in the world and rattling their beaks along the boat hulls for any treats or food. They have been in the locality all week and so I am wondering if the male cobb will also be starting to look for a nesting site.
Even from the short time that I have begun to regularly come to this little pool beside the canal, there seems to be such a difference here. Although, at the same time, nothing has changed.
The stand of cropped sedge by the fence post still stands cropped and stunted. The dull red embers of rosehip, withered and pursed with lines of winter’s aging, blackening at the ends, still silently hang from their thorny necklaces.
The ribbons of brambles, their rich deep green leaves, lined and blushing with burgundy and purple as if they’ve been dipped in the juice of last year’s berries… or is it, perhaps, for those with the eyes to see, a hint, a promise, of the colours of this year’s late summer? Whatever the case, they still garland the tangle of shrub and bush as they have always done each time I come here.
The difference, I think, is the light. There is something about the way it falls, even on a day like this of sullen greys. And there is a quality in the air that is different too. When I first started coming, it was first light. There was a feeling of newness to the day, of one set of lives emerging and another set departing. That transitional non-space, liminal, peripheral, the edge-lands of the day and night. Neither one thing nor the other. Now it is different. There is a settled feel to the day – no, this is not about time. It’s not temporal. It’s about the landscape, the geography – no that’s not quite right either. It’s about place – and all those things within a certain location that make it a distinct ‘place.’
The wave of trees – still stark and brush-like – along the bank. The shimmer of water – still, but always alive – of the canal. The scatter of stones around my boots. The slab of concrete, just about covered by the water in the little pool. The grove of ghost elms – bone white and smooth – ornamented with the thrill of starling, black bird and rook. The rotting remains of an old sleeper and some cut branches, upon which I sit. The peripheral scuttle of rabbit – the huff and nibble of the horses, the flare of redwings and dance of wagtails. The flit of the hawk’s shadow and wheel of the buzzard. The dainty cat-like strut of the moorhen, picking her way through the reeds a little further down the canal. The lightening flash of a squirrel that leaves a branch swaying to a non-existent wind. All these things make this spot the place it is.
And it is all of that and a hundred thousand unnoticed things more, that now feels so different, settled. When I come now, rather than sensing that feeling of a start a new beginning, that I am in a world just coming alive, I have been having the distinct feeling of being late to the party. Of slipping in to a ceremony or a play already long underway. The sun is only, what, perhaps six or seven fingers maybe higher, but it makes all the difference. This is a solid light, there is none of the tentative dusky-play of light and night. And that too is reflected in the soundscapes. The commuter traffic still rushes past, but the bird song is different – and it is not because of spring song has arrived. I generally used to arrive in the lull between the dawn chorus and day song. It seems almost as if, after the initial exuberance of first light before the sunrise, breaths need to be drawn, and a quietness descends for a short while. For us it was nearly always broken by the crows gathering and then flying off together in a great black river of wings on their morning patrol of their parish. Only later, when the sun rises further, the song resumes – call, alarm, contact call, ‘come here’, ‘stay away’, ‘who’s that?’ ‘Listen to me’. It’s different to the dawn chorus. And that is what I hear. This is a day that has long since begun. Life around me has been busy for a while. Where have you been, Richard? Why so late? Why so slow? The day is nearly half over. But my time is not their time. I have chosen to regulate my time by the circle of a cog-wheel or the pulse of a crystal. To live in a world, that has captured time and squeezed it into distinct – never changing – blocks. Regardless of what is happening around me. My day begins with a number not a shift of light and a stir in the temperature. To me, today, here. I am bang on time. To everything around me, I am late. I am behind. It is not surprising that their lives are so unknown to me.
These old boots of mine have been with me a long time. They have trod many, many, a mile, taking me to places whose names I can no longer remember, but they are etched gold in my memory. Impossible places of mountain scarps and thick grasses, sun-warmed walls, village benches and wayside styles on which to perch. Their locations forever cut free from their geographies. They swim with the currents of a different type of landscape. When I recall them, they are often just ‘some cove or high-cliff on the south coast, a wood that was somewhere in the flint and chalk of the Chilterns, the razor of a mountain ridge, beaten by icy rain in Wales, a failing light that turned the sculpted snowscapes of an unnameable lake district fell to blue and made the ground sparkle with a rainbow of crystals, the warmth of a wooden bench in the late afternoon sun along the wind of a country lane beside cottage whose garden was filled with hollyhocks, onion sets and the flickering orange fire of runner beans. Their geographical placement might now be hazy and rootless, but the places themselves remain real in the cartography of my past. I can vividly, sensorily, visit them still. Places of my heart. Places to which I can never physically return, but will always cherish and savour. Places that, today, help me to navigate the undiscovered future places to which these boots will take me.
Oh, the miles we have walked, these boots and I. I can’t quite remember when I bought them, although remember where. It must be getting on for forty-five years ago, now. I was in my late teens – on the push towards my twenties. I was still just nine and yet I was, in my head, as old as the hills. All my walking boots up until then had been the suede desert-boots that were popular with my peers. They were light, robust and, for the most part, did the job. You could clamber scree slopes in them like the best alpinist. I liked their brute functionality. I have always found a special, reliable, beauty in form as function. They tended to get scummy and matted and had a capacity to smell. They also, more importantly for me, lacked support. I had begun to backpack seriously which entailed carrying rucksacks that got heavier with each trip as catalogues were avidly scoured and more ‘essential’ gadgets and gizmos were added to the growing pile of my stash of camping and walking gear.
I was growing up – that cusp between boyhood and the huge chasms of who knows what? My days and weeks revolved around catalogues and comics. Thick little booklets on cheaply-printed paper that smelt of wood-pulp and ink and featured black and white cartoon sketches of the range of products. Plastic cigarettes that you could fill with talcum powder so that when you blew through them it looked like smoke and, according to the drawing, would send adults into apoplexies of rage and indignation. X-ray specs that meant you could see the bones in your hands. Itching powder that was great for elderly relatives, again according to the illustration, who still wore starched collars. Each tempting item was usually attended by lettering that shouted, ‘bargain’. In this respect, I shared much in common with Paddington Bear who too found it difficult to resist a bargain.
Items were selected and a trip down to the post office was made to purchase a postal order and a stamp from the terrifying post-mistress, with dragon like spectacles and a flare of white hair, who demanded from each child what the change should be before handing it over to them. Far more terrifying than any of my school teachers, children, to her, in the post office, were suspicious creatures, like pigeons that hang around a front door – you never knew quite what they were up to but you suspected the worse. What was even worse, children today could not do mental arithmetic and so the village Post Office become a surrogate maths class for the local children. As I queued at the counter to be served, I would nervously go over and over in my head what the change would be. Counting on my fingers to make sure. These were pe-decimal days. There seemed to be little consistency about how many of one thing made another. Later on, when I grew older, I got to know the post-mistress a bit better. She was no longer the terrifying figure, just a person, like me, trying to make sense of a fast-changing world. I thought she hated children. She didn’t. It was the opposite. As she got older, she too would make mistakes with her mental arithmetic. We would laugh and she would reach for the desk calculator – just to make sure.
It's funny. Whenever I go into a Post Office and wait to be served, I still get a slight feeling of anxious butterflies.
But it was always the anticipation, the wait, for the postman to come and deliver the parcel that was so exciting and excruciating at the same time. Of course, the items invariably failed to live up to their promise. But looking back, I think I seemed to be wise to that. I knew that the cardboard x-ray specs never really meant you could see the skull beneath the skin, or that the talc-puffing cigarettes, with their un-cigarettey glossy shine, would send adults beetroot red with indignation – just a long-suffering, ‘be careful not to get the talcum powder everywhere dear.’ That was never the point. It was the dreaming and the anticipation that was important. A purchase would also mean that the delivery would come with the newer catalogue, even thicker, updated and filled with even more wonderful mind-boggling things at bargain prices.
As I got older, the catalogues grew with me. Breakfasts, usually my optimal catalogue foraging time, were occupied by perusing, new types of catalogues filled with, now for me, more appealing items – still at bargain prices. 100% weather proof boots that would defy Noah’s flood. Just what I needed on my constantly rain-swept bicycle rides to work. It’s true, they were 100% waterproof, they were essentially very heavy gumboots formed out of plasticised rubber that included strange details like tongue and laces. They kept my feet dry, but posed a challenge to cycle in. Thick lumber jack shirts – the kind that keep ‘real men’ warm in the rugged Canadian backcountry. It was accompanied by a drawing of a chiselled Adonis, with an axe resting on one shoulder and an impression of pine forests behind him. He was staring into the middle distance and the shirt made all the difference. I bought a couple and they served me well – although, perhaps, ran counter to fashions that my peers were wearing! There is a photograph of me, sitting in the eternal sunshine of youth, on the banks of the Wye wearing one them. I am also wearing slightly dew-drenched desert boots. also got a set of waterproof overalls as worn by North Sea fishermen. They came on a day of torrential rain that over-flowed the gutters. I quickly donned them rushed outside and stood underneath the gushing water spouts.
By the time I was reaching my late teens, I had fallen in love with mountains and camping. My choice in catalogues changed again. One particularly, took the form of a book or an expanded magazine. It was not simply a list of products, by explanations, field tests, hints and tips on pitching, navigation, survival. It was the first catalogue that was not free, but boy was it worth it! The more I became immersed, the more I knew that my old desert boots would not, as they say, cut the mustard. What is more, I was intent on doing some winter climbing and, for that, I was advised, I would need crampons – spikes that you attach to the soles of your walking boots. For that, the boots needed very firm – if not rigid – soles. I would need, I decided, to get some proper boots. This would not be cheap (I had the catalogue prices in front of me), and also, I had to make sure that they were as perfect a fit to my feet as possible – my feet were (and still are a bit) unusually narrow which meant buying shoes for me when I was younger quite difficult. I had saved up some money and so decided to get a train and go London to the biggest specialised outdoor shop at the time – this was before they became popular and certainly before branded outdoor wear became fashionable for high-street shoppers.
And so, armed with all the knowledge I could glean from catalogues and magazines (these were the days before personal computers let alone the internet), I chose this pair of boots. They fitted snug – they still do. They are heavy, clumpy, and yet, somehow, each time I put them on, they feel like slippers. There is something comforting about putting them on, pulling on the laces as tight as possible and tying them on. They were made by an Italian mountaineering company, hardwearing, with rigid Vibram soles. This was when Vibram was just coming out. Expensive, but the best – offering superior traction. A gamechanger for climbing (walking was a less popular concept then – if you were into serious camping and outdoors – climbing was the name of the game). It was greeted in the same way that Gore-Tex would be greeted a decade or so later.
I quickly found that Vibram soles, although it is true for most conditions offer excellent grip, on some surfaces offer less traction than a pair of roller skates. Wet slate, for one. Try walking on wet wood and you might as well coat your soles with grease and strap a rocket pack to your back. All this I quickly learned, but I also quickly learnt to be able to trust your boots. I trust these in a way that I do not trust any other boot. They will hold me on scree, or a muddy incline as if I were a fly on a wall. They are old, scuffed and scratched by the miles that they have carried me, they are beginning to crack a little and let water in, but they know me and I know them. I can trust them.
As I got older, I began to push away from the type of backpacking that involved carrying loads gear in a bulging rucksack. At first, I enjoyed the challenge of endurance, how much I could carry over cliff paths or up mountain sides, but later it felt as if all of that was missing the point. That sort of backpacking felt more like being insulated from the world I wanted to encounter and, for a short while, be a part of. Tents, gadgets, equipment, were ways of controlling my environment, keeping me away from it. Moulding it to me. I wanted it to mould me. I became much more interested in light weight and minimal backpacking. Ditching the tent and as much gear as possible. Sleeping under hedges. Travelling light. And so, my boots had to go. Replaced by trainer-style shoes. I bought a pair of hi-top basketball shoes, that I walked until they fell apart. They seemed perfect. This was the time before trainer type walking shoes had been developed, but I loved those hi-tops as much as my boots. But I could never let myself throw my old boots away. We’d been through too much together.
These boots had taken me to a world that was once just a dream, but more than that, they took me to the places where I could be me. My first tentative treks, around the Chilterns, just day walks, or little overnighters, taught me that out here, on my own, in a wood or crossing ploughed flinty fields, I was different. I was less frenetic in my head. Things that I thought would worry me, didn’t. On one early walk, I got hopelessly lost in Ashridge Forest and can remember the almost physical shock of realisation, that I didn’t care – in all truth, being lost there isn’t such a big deal – more a nuisance, an inconvenience. Just walk for the maximum of a couple of hours and you will come out somewhere, but the thing was, I didn’t need to reassure myself or tell myself that. If I did meet people, which I tried not to, I felt easier with them, more in control, even initiate a greeting and be comfortable enough to end it too. Practically, I was different. Once, when I was miles from habitation on the high cliffs of Dorset, my rucksack suddenly broke. What struck me at the time was the lack of panic or despondency I felt. It was a problem and there had to be a way I could fix it and fix it I did. If I was at home. I was a different person to the one I had known, and these boots had taken me to find him. I can remember the disappointment I experienced, when returning from one of my backpacking trips, that that me, somehow never returned with me, but stayed out there – in the woodlands, on the fells or the cliff-tops and bays. I wanted those around me to see the real me. The me that I was. But it would never be. And so those times, when I would take hold of my boots, lace them on, became times filled with such import and significance for me. Times when my boots allowed me to walk into the person I really was.
After we got married, I got a new pair of boots for our walks. Lighter, more weatherproof. But still these boots remained, in their boot-bag, in the boot locker. From time to time, the thought would strike me that, I really need to chuck them out. To be honest, I didn’t think that even charity shops would take such a battered pair. But I just couldn’t. And, on walks with Penny, I would sometimes put them on for old time’s sake and all those old feelings would return. I would be again, be surprised by their snug, supporting, comfort, how they had moulded around me and I had moulded around them. I would pull on the laces and as I did so, memories would flood back. The familiar little kick slide as I crossed the greasy wooden log over the stream would make me smile – oh yes! I remember!
And so, I would rub waterproofing in them again and put them carefully back in their bag in the boot locker. The test came when we moved onto the boat. There was not enough room for two pairs. The old or the new? There could, have course, only been one pair!
These boots and I have become reacquainted with one another again. Although, that might sound a little misleading. There was never really any need for reacquaintance, we both know each other well. And so over forty years after their purchase in a bright, busy, London store a world and a life away, these boots are still taking me to new places – and, I think, taking me to meet a different older me. The me that I need to meet and for whom I have been waiting for a long time. There are miles ahead that these boots and I need to walk together. I get the feeling, the most important miles of my life.
This is the narrowboat Erica signing off for the night and wishing you a very warm, restful, and peaceful night. Good night.