A few days ago I sat on the back of the boat with the hot sun warming my back and a squadron of swallows swooping and diving overhead. It could have been mid summer were it not for a hint of gold adorning some of the nearby trees or the distinctive autumnal song of a robin in the hedgerow. Today, autumn has stifled the summer’s last gasp and those golden leaves are dancing on the rippling surface of the water, dislodged by a bracingly cold breeze. I haven’t seen a swallow since then. Maybe, like us they are now on their way to their winter grounds. The next time we enjoy their display they will be skimming the waters of the marina next spring and we will be preparing to set out once more on another summer of adventure.
We are now on very familiar waters, retracing our steps and counting down the days until we make the final turn onto the Rufford branch of the Leeds and Liverpool canal and descend the seven locks to our marina to hunker down for the winter. Any journey’s end is a time of sadness but it’s mixed with the satisfaction of having created another bagful of memories that we can dip into during the long dark nights ahead. We met up with a couple of friends on their narrow boat yesterday and they asked us an often repeated question, “why do you go back to the marina in the winter? Why not just carry on cruising?” It’s a question we often ask ourselves, in fact, it was always our original intention when we bought the boat to spend the first winter in a marina and then take off with no plan to return and nothing to pin us down. What got in the way was community, friendships, the feeling of belonging somewhere and having roots. There are practical difficulties and discomforts to winter cruising that put us off but it’s mainly the people that draw us back to the same place each autumn. Like the swallows, we have become migratory.
Our third summer of wandering the waterways got off to a late start due to lock down but what we have missed in weeks we have more than made up for in new discoveries. We were more or less resigned to sticking to routes we have done before but a last minute change of plan gave us the opportunity to sample the Caldon, Macclesfield and Peak Forest canals and they proved to be some of the most rewarding we have ever done. They are mostly quiet peaceful places reaching deep into the heights and beauty of the Pennine hills.
Towns and villages are small and sparsely scattered, entertainment is in the form of wildlife, expansive views and an abundance of flowers and bird song. The once busy and gritty industrial nature of the canals has been softened under a mantle of wildness, occasionally uncovered or preserved to add interest but only rarely dominating the scene.
There are great opportunities to combine walking with narrow boating in all of these areas and it’s relatively easy to gain amazing views from minimal effort. An hour or so of gentle climbing brought us views across the Cheshire plains to Welsh hills and north over Manchester to the Pennines. Quiet moorings were easy to find with nothing but the stars and silence for company. Places where you can watch a heron or a kingfisher catching its prey or a kestrel riding the breeze. Magical moments are two a penny on all of these canals and we are already talking about return visits to sample them in the early spring perhaps.
As always we have met some lovely people along the way and although it hasn’t been quite so spontaneous because of the Covid effect we’ve still enjoyed the company of boaters, fishermen and tow path wanderers as we have meandered along. People always have questions about life on a narrow boat but then we always have questions about the locality so we are happy to trade information. We even managed to keep smiling and saying good morning to each and every one of the sixty five competition fishermen strung out along the bank that we passed the other day. With each season that passes we are increasingly likely to come across familiar boats and boaters and it’s always great to catch up and exchange a story or two whilst carefully tip toeing around the fact that neither of us can remember each other’s names or where we met. Most encounters start with “oh look there’s that couple from *insert boat name here* and I have no doubt they do the same. We really should write things down.
It’s several days now since I started writing this and the last few mornings have found us rummaging around looking for gloves and thermals so it was a delightful surprise to see more swallows today still skimming over the canal optimistically looking for food on such a chilly morning. In a few days we will be settled back into our berth while they will be setting out on their amazing journey to Africa. When it’s cold and dark and the water in the marina is freezing over this winter I’ll look forward to seeing the first of the swallows return in April to start the cycle all over again and herald another great summer on our Golden Girl. Whenever we get to this part of a summer’s journey it always feels like we are going home. Maybe that is what would be missing if we just cruised throughout the year with no base to return to. We often consider the idea of just travelling endlessly but for now we’ll just stick to being swallows.