Coming out of Chipping Warden on the A361, we see ahead of us the long line of poplars that, over the past few weeks, have been turning from tall, stately skeletons into leaf-shrouded guardians of the horizon. It’s spring in England, and our journeys from Oxford to Braunston have been marked by the slow emergence of life in the hedgerows and copses visible from the road.
Why Braunston? To anyone who’s ever cruised the canals, it’s not a question. In its heyday, Braunston was the hub of the canal system, the point at which, not only did the Grand Union split in two – one branch snaking north to Leicester, the other heading for the steel furnaces of Birmingham – but it also bisects the Oxford-Coventry Canal.
It was, back in the day, the site of a busy boat-building industry, with coal carriers, chandlers and rope makers. Today, it’s where both the Braunston Marina and, within it, our boat Patience, are to be found.
Which explains why we were hurtling in our hired Citroen through Chipping Warden, Byfield, Charwelton, Fawsley, Badby and Daventry – and past Preston Capes, Prior Marston, Wormleighton and Appletree. (Forgive my extravagance – I am, of course, just showing off.)
Patience had just spent three weeks in drydock, and we were on our way to take delivery of her from master-painter Dave Bishop.
Painting a narrowboat is very different from painting, say, a house, or even a very intricate piece of Chinese furniture which, come to think of it, is, by comparison, the merest doddle.
Painting a narrowboat properly requires, first, that you strip off every flake of the existing paint, taking it, as we like in the trade to say, “down to metal”.
And then building up its new paint sheath layer by layer. I like to think there are seven of them, but I don’t really know, from an initial layer intended to protect the steel shell from developing rust, to the last, glossy coating that is so lustrous it looks like you could dip a finger in it.
Of course, this all costs a bomb, but Trish and I tried hard not to think of this as we barreled down the last long hill from Daventry.
“There’s the spire,” I said, spotting the tall, incredibly sharp spire of Braunston’s All Saint’s Church, otherwise known as the Cathedral of the Canals. It was the equivalent of that first sighting of a thin edge of blue on those childhood journeys from Johannesburg to Durban: it marks the moment you know you’re really there.
“I hope it was worth it.” Trish at the wheel was fretting.
“I’m sure it was.” I tried to invest my words with more confidence than I felt. It had been an enormous sum of money.
We turned right at the sign and a moment later were pulling up in the bay whose sign sternly indicated that it was for turning only.
“She’s moored up,” I said. “And Dave’s checking her out.”
We made our way out along the jetty to the berth at which we’d been mooring Patience for the last six years. Dave met us at the stern.
“Well timed,” he said. “We’ve just brought her over from the drydock.”
We hardly heard him. Our eyes were on that glossy deep green surface… On the silver grey roof… On the truly elegant name, inscribed in flowing, shadowed letters in a graceful arc: Patience. And below that: Braunston.
What could be more perfect? Our home, and the HQ of Allaboutwriting, for the next six months. And the source of a weekly blog on canal-boating and writing. So it’s just as well she’s as beautiful as Helen of Troy who was, if you remember, so fair of face that she launched a thousand ships.
We only have one, and she’s Patience.