Route canals

Saturday 13th May 2012

IRON Lady, they called the woman who ruled this country with uncompromising cruelty, when my son, Gaius, was growing up. For four years of her reign, I was unemployed. We had to improvise.

“Here you are, dad. Mouth-watering Moxon soup. Get it down ya.”

It’s raining, again. We’re in a tent by the side of a towpath, just outside Brierfield, in Lancashire. The hardest day so far, trekking over the Pennines in persistent drizzle. Only two short lifts and having to negotiate thick mud and barbed wire on a squelching detour over the Foulridge Tunnel.

The soup – named after the Yorkshire cricketer: ‘got Oxo in it’ – is several degrees short of lukewarm; as tasty and filling as limp lettuce.

“What a feast!”

We tot up the day’s spending: pub lunch, £4.12: enough in the kitty for a train to Liverpool tomorrow for the Second XI’s Roses Match.

Gaius has blisters. He is fourteen, fit, full of good humour. Poverty amuses him, tests his creativity: the candle stove he’s fashioned from a baked bean tin. Not once on the forty miles from Bradford has he moaned about the weight of rain or rucksack.

Hitchhiking on the waterways is a proper holiday. We were away for a month, watched eight cricket matches, admired the contours of fourteen canals, stayed with several friends, and played countless games of cards: all on less than ten quid a day.

Somewhere deep in a damp rucksack containing more essentials – binoculars, bat, Playfair annual – than necessities, is a first aid box. By candlelight, Gaius peels off soggy socks and examines blue-grey toes.

“Ah, trench foot!” he grins.

We kept dairies of those summers: spiral-bound notebooks I’ve recently retrieved from the filing cabinet.

The familiar Gaius handwriting both shouts and whispers; at times loose and windswept, at others needle-point neat. There are lists, in-jokes, scorecards, distances, fines and forfeits; a record of great adventures; at locks, under canvas, on boundary edges: a now-poignant memoir of father and son, making merry.







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