Thursday 5th May 2016
17 miles – Grand Union Canal
Sunny, warm max 20C
A short distance out of Wolverton, the Grand Union Canal and I are transported high over the River Great Ouse by the Iron Trunk Aqueduct, a magnificent Georgian structure.
Paradoxically this is at the lowest level of the southern Grand Union towards which I’ve been descending almost imperceptibly via 24 locks since I reached the Tring summit on Monday evening. The navigation used to be even lower here. Before the aqueduct was built, a flight of four locks took working boats down from the Wolverton side so they could cross the Great Ouse at its own level and then ascend by working up through another five locks to reach the village of Cosgrove on the far bank. This was time consuming as well as wasteful of water so a triple-arch brick aqueduct was opened in 1805, engineered by William Jessop. Unfortunately this collapsed in 1808, severing the canal, at which point the original locks (of which I could see no vestiges today) had to be temporarily reinstated. Then engineer Benjamin Bevan designed a new two-arch stone structure carrying a cast-iron trough of water at a height of 10.8 metres above the river. This was inspired by the leading-edge model that had recently been employed by Thomas Telford for the stunning Pontcysyllte aqueduct (a world heritage site) near Llangollen. The new aqueduct was opened in 1811 and remains in operation to this sunny day, although the supporting arches have been brick-faced since 1921. The expense, ingenuity and tenacity exhibited in all these arrangements more than two centuries ago bring home to me now the huge commercial importance of the canals in those days.
Even if you were to disregard the engineering and history here, this is a wondrous spot (see photo below) and is also the point where I leave MK and Buckinghamshire to enter Northamptonshire. Officially I’m leaving behind the South East of England and am walking now in the genuine Midlands. And although these administrative and cultural boundaries are invisible to me it is evident that this crucifix of waterways is announcing a very noticeable change again in the character of my walking terrain, from suburbia to Arcadia this time.
If you have not previously associated Northamptonshire with this Ancient Greek notion (and modern Greek province) that has persisted for centuries as a poetic byword for pastoralism and harmony with nature then I doubt you are alone. Until today, even I had considered this county as no more than an unfortunate and early obstruction on the way to the North via the M1 or West Coast Mainline. But today it reveals itself via the Grand Union to be an idyllic locale reminiscent of the setting of Vergil’s Eclogues, as I now pass through mile after mile of Ceres’ fields and sheep pastures via a grassy towpath alongside a waterway that teems with goslings, ducklings and cygnets and where welcome shade is provided to walkers by arching hawthorns whose heady scent of May blossom almost intoxicates me.
It doesn’t smell or taste like Marmite but people do either love it or hate it. I’m a big fan, as much as I’m an enemy of Marmite. The sight and aroma of the common hawthorn in full flower just makes me so glad to be alive, heralding as it does the maturing of Spring and the longer days now to be spent walking in the countryside. I cannot get enough of it. It’s been coming into its prime during my walk so far especially since the temperature has risen this week. Because it is ubiquitous and prolific, the May Tree’s huge clusters of creamy flowers provide an early broad-brush decoration of England’s landscape all the way from South to North in a contrasting cream-on-green way that no other native can match at this time of year or any time I think. But some people find it foul smelling. In Medieval times its scent was associated with the plague and therefore with illness and death such that this became a reason to avoid bringing its flora indoors. Curiously botanists have since discovered that the chemical trimethylamine which is a key constituent of the flower is also one of the first compounds to be released in the process of decaying animal flesh. And yes when I think of that fact, I can indeed get a whiff of slightly rotten flesh or of fish that’s neither old nor fresh, but I can always then still sniff deeply beyond that. One day I will make a jam from its fruit and a salad including its leaves.
Being alone today means there’s plenty of time for reflection and so I soon stumble upon the other reason – a subliminal one – why I earlier today linked this locality with the silver age of Latin Literature. That’s Kev. The only son of Northampton Town I’ve ever befriended. We were colleagues in the School of Classics at the University of Liverpool around the end of the 1970s. Oddly for a Classicist – even one in Liverpool – Kev was a skinhead, rarely seen without tan Doc Martens, a Harrington jacket and the appearance and attitudes of a pit bull terrier. I cannot think of Kev without recalling at the same time the football match we both played in for the “Classical Society First (and only) XI” versus the “Open Air Club”. This was not a top-of-the-table clash. Neither team could muster eleven bona fide male members to do battle in what was generally a female-free competition, this being the 1970s. The Open Air Club deviously employed women dressed up (in what resembled walking gear) as guys. We had plumped for male ringers who’d been overlooked by the coaching staff of butch faculties such as Geography (goalie Alf), History (utility man Richard) and Comecon (marijuana Jim) – plus a couple of superb brothers from Woolton whose names I forget but who had no connections at all with the University. All these signings of ours were, I have to say, far better at football than our opposing hikers (cross-dressed or not) and indeed ourselves. While this was not a fixture eagerly anticipated by anyone anywhere for any reason at all, especially in a league dominated by testosterone-fuelled hordes of hardworking Engineers (and mysterious Comeconomists), it turned out to be a remarkable game for three reasons.
- Firstly the final score: Classics 13, Open Air 0. A record win at the University then; and I’d be amazed if it has been bettered any time since in the footballing life of that football-mad city (let alone by Classical scholars or hikers).
- Secondly, five (5) goals were scored that day by that classic number 9, Michael Sheridan, a Personal Best that endured throughout and beyond his future illustrious career with “The Old Inebriations” (Haringey and District Sunday League) and even his twilight MLS-like days gracing the AstroTurf occasionally for “HUBO FC” (Holloway Unemployment Benefit Office) and BT’s “Charles House (Kensington)”.
- Thirdly, Kev punched the lights out of an effete gender-neutral member of the opposition in an incident I didn’t see but learned of shortly afterwards when the bloodied and lesser-toothed victim came running to me for comfort, complaining of an unprovoked assault. Kev didn’t disagree with this interpretation when I quizzed him in a leisurely moment in between goals 4 and 5. I abhor violence and had little to do after that with Kev who, as far as I recall, never wore our praetexta again.
Bond, James Bond
The Kev incident wasn’t even seen that day by the referee. That might have been because the man in black then – as often in our victories – was called Bond, James Bond. Not a spook as such but definitely some sort of undercover agent with a helpful blind eye when it came to our infringements. For not only was James one of the few qualified referees in town who sported the full black regalia, coloured cards, whistle and notebook but he was also a third-year Classics student and the driver and kit-man for our team (as well as the sports editor of the Student Union rag). I owe James. Not only for his bit-part in my five-goal tally that day but also because I gained from him the insight that life does indeed “take all sorts” (including a few Kevs). James managed to combine the appearance (though we didn’t know it then) of a youthful Alan Partridge with that of a fully mature Tony Blair (and yes I know now they are more or less the same thing). He went on to be a journalist with the Hartlepool Evening Mail and then a presenter on BBC Radio Shropshire. He once took me on a road trip in his Austin Mini (not easily confused with his namesake’s Aston Martin) – along with goalie Alf and a few bottles of homemade Banana wine that we picked up en route in Whitchurch – to Gay Meadow on the banks of the River Severn, where at least one of us was reporting on the clash of midgets that was unfolding there: probably Shrewsbury Town versus Hartlepool United. We had to stop quite a few times on the A49 on the way back to Merseyside – and no I don’t remember the final score that Wednesday night; but I’m convinced that all this happened. I also owe James for the lesson I learned through knowing him that it’s perfectly possible in life to stand up to aggression with a smile on your face. A lesson not just learned every time he refereed a match but one I took to heart on the occasion when he later snook me into the press box at Ayresome Park to watch Middlesborough being thrashed 1-4 by Fulham after which – during the official media conference – Bond asked a question to which Fulham’s then manager, bow-legged ex-Gunner Malcolm MacDonald (another classic number 9) didn’t take that kindly. Unbelievably now, James and I also sat together during the 1980s in the press box at Highbury Stadium to “report on” an uneven match between Arsenal and Man City (a 1-0 home win I should think) but I was too overcome by the occasion then to be able to retrieve today any memory at all of the post-match buffet and chatter with Terry Neil and whomever it was that had got the final seat that week in City’s routine game of musical managers.
Now you might think that the 1979 Classics victory against Open Air was a fix and a one-off. I assure you that neither was the case. We went on to perform above expectations and with integrity for the rest of the season, so much so that we actually won the University of Liverpool 7-a-side football tournament. Read that again, I urge you. 7s are unusual in football but the format suited us well because we could just about gather together a septet of bona fide (male) Classicists, and also because each school, faculty, hall, society or club was allowed to enter only one such team which levelled out the playing field a little. Our triumph was the talk of the town. Not least because: Bond was not refereeing the final, our goalie Jim (non-marijuana Jim) was one of our own; and we had in fact no ringers on board at all (well just a sub or two). And no Kev
I mentioned Tony Blair in passing back there, not far north of Cosgrove. But my mind returns to him now on the towpath in the middle of nowhere. This is partly because he inadvertently and indirectly inspired this walk of mine. His bogus rationale for leading the UK into the Iraq War – with its consequent massive death and destruction, and its effect of exacerbating grievances between the Islamic world and “The West” – had been one of the catalysts in Marina Cantacuzino’s journey to form The Forgiveness Project. But I also return to thinking about him because he has a sort of family connection with me. His children attended the same primary school as I and my siblings did, as did my own children until very recently: St Joan of Arc RC Primary in Islington, North London. What’s more, two-Tone attended Sunday mass at the church associated with this school both before and during his premiership, prior to becoming a Catholic later. As a feature of being a celebrity worshipper on Sunday mornings he was lucky enough to get to know my lifelong church-going parents, possibly just in a “nodding acquaintance” and chummy chat sort of way. A few years after my mother died in 2003, my father (like mum a stalwart of the parish) had to quit his Sunday routine when he went to live in a care home in nearby (but not near enough) Highgate. Blair soon gave him a gift to mark the occasion and show respect. It was a signed photo of himself and Cherie… “to Jimmy… etc.” Now like me, you can probably envisage a less egotistical and more generous gift to bestow on such an occasion. However it meant a lot to my dad despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that Jimmy had always, as far as I know, been a Tory voter and Daily Express reader, to my constant mystification I have to say. When dad passed away in 2008 it fell to me to curate this photographic inheritance which I do to this day. It is either in a three-cubic metre storage locker in Denton or in a box in my sister’s attic in Glossop, the two modest locations where all my worldly possessions now reside. It patiently awaits a 22nd century episode of the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow where a descendant of mine will no doubt appear visibly underwhelmed by the evaluation made of it.
I don’t feel at all warm towards Blair. I don’t feel vitriol either because I find it impossible to be thoughtfully vitriolic about any human being. I would definitely not wish to meet him though. He comes across as being too keen on the stage, too showy about “faith” in a dispassionate way, and seems to be the antithesis of humility and the very definition of lust for wealth. I’m willing to believe that there’s more to him than all that. But I’m not interested and I cannot help wishing he’d keep very quiet these days and go for a long silent walk by the waterways to cleanse his soul in private. I sort of regret thinking about him now.
After all this, I’m glad to reach Stoke Bruerne, a tiny village of less than 500 residents but a Mecca for canal geeks. For me it’s a late lunch stop and a chance to replenish water supplies. But for others whom I meet here it’s a pilgrimage. Stoke Bruerne is a picturesque place bisected by the Grand Union Canal, about which I’ll say more in my next post because I’m dividing today’s blog into two halves now. That’s because I know my posts are becoming too long for a blog and because I also know there’s a lot ahead today including the first of three long towpath-less tunnels on my route, a warm sunny afternoon of reflections and decisions about forgiveness, and a bed that for once has been pre-booked. Join me again in Stoke Bruerne after lunch.