Sometimes, when there’s a dip in the conversation in the pub, I like to throw in the phrase “my father owns a boat”. I don’t like to elaborate because it ruins the image of a bright white yacht cutting through the Mediterranean Sea as I stand at the helm bikini-clad, hair streaking out behind me. You see, in the universe where my dad owns a yacht, I also have a personal trainer and wear bikinis all the time. It is always sunny and there is always champagne.
My dad’s boat, however, is not white. Galadriel is forest green with wooden shutters and a tendency to drift slightly to the left. Her sundeck (roof) is littered with tea-stained mugs rather than champagne flutes and I have never worn a bikini while navigating the Coventry Canal. At a top speed of six miles an hour my hair stays stringy and damp in the Midlands drizzle.
Galadriel may never feature on the Lotto adverts, but she has shown us the hidden corners of the West Midlands and taught us how to slow down.
We putter through forests, bluebells splotching the deep green canvas like flecks of paint. Woodpigeons hoot lazily somewhere above. The smell of damp leaves drying in the sun mixes with the faint tang of diesel. Forest opens out into farmland. Cows lap at the muddy canal. It could be hours before we see another boat and, when we do, there’s always a couple of minutes to have a driver-to-driver chat. Topics of conversation vary from the weather to rumoured incidents of canal rage at lock 77. The pun “argy bargey” is used liberally. It could be days of unbroken countryside before hearing the rumble of the motorway over a bridge. When feel the slow tempo of Galadriel’s motor chugging along under the concrete arches while juggernaughts thunder overhead, I think about the blur of colour out the car window. The fast lane. I’m glad I’m on the canal.
On the outskirts of red-brick Midland towns plastic bags float like jellyfish in the murky water. Abandoned industrial buildings line the canal. A green scum from the waterline coats the crumbling brick and broken windows look forlorn. There’s always the skeletal frame of a supermarket trolley in the canal. Once we fished out a wheelbarrow blocking a set of lock gates and displayed it proudly on the bow of the boat, only to have it confiscated by British Waterways at the next flight. We still have photos of my dad holding it up like a prize fish.
Galadriel rises up from the dank bottom of locks and, at sprawling flights like Hatton, the canal-side bubbles with activity. After guiding the boat between the slimy walls, it feels odd to emerge to a crowd of people, sunshine and a pub at the top. Sunday walkers peer over the lock edge and I feel like He-man holding 14 tonnes of barge steady with one wet bit of rope. Children ask if they can have a shot of the windlass, but there is a strict boat code about that kind of thing. I’ve winded myself with a spinning windlass enough times to know why. Besides, there’s something satisfying about the tick tick tick of metal on metal as we crank open the lock paddles that I don’t like to give up. Dogs snooze by the feet of owners with pints glinting golden in the British sun, but if we moore up next to a pub for the night curious eyes will wander through Galadriel’s windows to see how the weird canal folk live. Comments like “they’ve got a little kitchen in there!” and “there’s even armcahirs,” make me smile.
As the sky streaks pink it’s my job to stand at the front with a couple of mooring pegs ready to leap onto the bank. If the temperature dips with the sun, we’ll light the oil stove, heat shudding through Galadriel’s brass pipes. We play slow games of Risk. My final task is folding the table into a bed, cracking my back before getting under the covers. My muscles tingle with the day’s work and Galadriel, slowly, rocks me to sleep.