The Waterway

On the towpath, bits of black stuff with a slight shimmer. It’s late summer now – in the distance, a tractor is making bales of hay. This walk is along the Leeds and Liverpool canal. There used to be a mine near here, the Maypole Colliery. In 1908, many men died deep under this ground. They had many names for the stuff pulled up from the vast coalfield: cannel, slag, slack…and ‘bass’ – dark matter that didn’t burn. My companion, born in the North, is unsure of the spelling because he never saw the word written down. The past is underfoot, so close….put a piece of it in my pocket.

Back in London, another afternoon and a cruise down the Thames with my elder son. Our river. The day is damp, the boat half-empty and the dear old water is as muddy as ever. The wake churns behind us – we’re moving against the tide. Past Greenwich the river is quiet. Only a few rusting hulks, closed wharves and a ‘sugar ship’ moored by a historic dock. A pale, busy and beautiful cloud of birds gathers on the bank, above a building. This, the captain tells us, is a plant that processes unwanted meat into other products. The gulls are vultures. Then, round the bend, a new wonder of the world – the Flood Barrier, already raised several times this year. It doesn’t look much, the piers like rows of upturned keels, but the power is there, unseen, under the surface. The ten great gates lie flat on the river bed. A wall of steel against  rising waters.

No scent of the sea this summer, but there was a third body of water. A small, still lake in Northampton shire, in the  grounds of Lady Diana’s childhood home. In the middle of the lake, an island with a classical urn visible amongst the trees. No sign of a boat. A very private place for a public princess. Opposite the lake stands a structure like a temple. Unlike the dewy, decaying bouquets piled against the palace gates, at the end of another August – the flowers laid here are fresh.

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