Meandering Down the Oxford Canal
Our Sleep Storyteller-in-Residence, Phoebe Smith, talks about the adventure behind her latest Sleep Story, Meandering Down the Oxford Canal.
I was spiralling out of control - fast. Not behaviourally, you understand, but actually, physically, on a boat, careering down a watery channel, spinning in tight circles, gaining momentum as I approached the thick wooden barriers of the canal lock.
A man standing on the towpath – a walking trail that runs alongside most of Britain’s waterways, leftover from when these manmade channels would pull boats laden with cargo by horse as roads were not yet developed – called to ask if I needed help. At first I declined, I’d literally minutes earlier been given the keys to this my very own narrowboat, and pride was getting the better of me.
It had all started a few weeks earlier. I’d known about narrowboats –the long, slim vessels that were invented during the Industrial Revolution of 1760 to take large amounts of raw materials and finished products between major cities –since I was a child. A canal ran along a particularly pretty patch of countryside near where I grew up and, if we were very good, my mum would take my brother and I away from the bustle of the town we lived in and treat us to a stroll by the water.
Seeing my first narrowboat, painted cream, blue and maroon, was like witnessing a grow-up doll’s house.
Everything about it seemed friendly, from the big black chimney that protruded, mushroom-like from the roof, to the brass fixtures that shone in the sunlight, and the intertwined flowers that decorated the internal wooden panels. Inside I loved how everything cleverly slotted together to form a small, but perfectly functional living space – I was well and truly enchanted.
As I grew up I always longed to own one, but they seemed so very expensive. That is, until one day, when – tired of being unable to buy a house for myself due to rising costs – I happened to type the words ‘used narrowboat for sale’ into my internet search bar.
It was love at first sight. To others I think she looked a bit of a wreck (I say ‘she’ because tradition dictates that every boat is of course female), but to me she represented everything I needed. She was just 23ft long – easy enough (or so I certainly thought at the time) to operate even for a novice like me. Everything inside would need to be ripped out and built again and even, a survey later told me, on the outside her hull would need some welding, but to me she represented freedom.
Freedom to escape the deadlines, emails and frenetic pace of my daily life in the urban, offering me sanctuary atop the water.
Before I realised fully what I was doing, I was in my car headed up north to see her. “It’s the fastest way of slowing down, for sure,” the salesmen promised me as we approached the mooring, and while I promised myself not to fall head over heels for her, it was fruitless.
Despite the rust, despite all the work needed, I could see beyond it all and made an offer then and there.
Fast forward a few weeks and I was picking her up from the boatyard, whereupon the manager gave me a 5-minute lesson on tillering (that’s narrowboat talk for ‘steering’) and sent me on my way.
It was an odd moment when he stepped off the boat and onto the towpath (it’s that easy to abandon ship seeing as the top speed is less than 4mph) leaving me standing at the helm feeling utterly terrified and irrepressibly excited at the same time.
This was the freedom I had been seeking all along and I revelled in it, feeling utterly independent and totally exhilarated.
That was until I approached my first lock. Lining the canals and rivers across England, Wales and Scotland are a series of these incredible inventions that allow boats to climb up or descend down steep water through a series of ‘steps’.
There were enough people around who I knew I could ask about operating one (and I’d had a quick look online to understand the principle beforehand) but I had no idea how to smoothly and carefully line the boat up inside one without crashing.
It was at that point – certain that a collision was imminent – that I began to turn the boat away. I didn’t merely gently persuade it, but rather pushed the tiller so hard that I began to spin around in circles. I must have looked like such a haphazard boater and so unsurprisingly I was offered help.
After spinning for a couple of minutes I finally found the courage to swallow my pride and accept it and, like magic, everything changed.
The man who boarded my boat showed me the secret. It wasn’t about reacting fast; it was about slowing absolutely everything down. My little narrowboat wouldn’t instantly do what I wanted, but with quiet determination I could, gently and without force or haste, steer it to go where I decided.
“Move fast,” my rescuer said, “and you’ll miss out on the true wonder of being on the water.”
He was so right. Since then, I’ve renovated what was a small, floating and unloved boat, into a peaceful haven where I go to write. I’ve navigated many of Britain’s canals and river systems and relished every challenge they throw at me, knowing that, with a little patience, I am in control. She has taught me the beauty of slowing down in so many ways. Not just physically, but in life in general. Because, after all, what’s the point of rushing – when the journey is our most precious cargo?