Milton Keynes – the city that is no city

Braunston to London: Days 4 – 6

It blew all day at our mooring north of Cosgrove, blew until it felt as if it would flatten the landscape, obliterate the canal and all who cruised upon it.

We went to sleep with the gale blowing us hard against the canalside shore.

And woke to discover the truth of that old cliché that I’ve known since Swallows and Amazons days: every gale eventually blows itself out. And the sun was trying with some little success to make its presence known.

So we cruised on, over an aqueduct crossing the River Ouse, and so into Cosgrove itself, entry into which is marked by the most elegant of Georgian bridges, built in 1800 and going strong.

We holed up here, almost in the shadow of the bridge, for a night and most of the next day, working on Allaboutwriting, doing our tax returns and wondering how long we could (a) delay taking on water (b) rely on our 13kg gas cylinder, and, most importantly, (c) avoid a pump-out. Much more about this last, nasty but necessary chore, later.

Next day we chugged just a mile or two to the outskirts of Milton Keynes, and another overnight stop.

While Trish went to stock up at a nearby Tescos, I took my leisure on a bench on the canal path, where I was joined by a man and his dog. We fell to talking. He had had his dog, he told me, for four years, and in that time he had taught him considerable wisdom. Chief of the lessons the hound had learned was to put aside the anger and the viciousness that had so characterized his behaviour during his first year. But he, his trainer (he went on), had also learned a great deal.

What lessons had his dog taught him, I asked.

“He taught me that it is possible to decide to do something, to find out how to go about it, and to do it.” He said this with considerable satisfaction. He was talking about teaching his dog to give up his former disreputable behavior.

We steamed on then into the depths of Milton Keynes, a chill rain setting in, freezing me despite my Barbour and gloves. We stumbled to a halt opposite Great Linford Park, fumbled with the mooring hooks, threaded what we nautical types call “lines”, but which might be more familiar to you as “ropes”, through the hooks, before taking refuge in Patience from the downpour.

Whereupon the sun broke through the clouds, and within minutes any memories we might have had of rain and discomfort seemed outlandish. Trish went for a walk, and came back with reports of a cricket match on the sward.

Cricket at Great Linford

And thence, the next day, on through the mighty metropolis that is Milton Keynes. Here are some impressions of this city that is, when you look hard at it, not a city at all. In fact, when you look hard at it, from the canal at least, it seems not to exist in any sense.

A man walking a ragtag pack of eleven dogs.

A teenager skating along the track that parallels the canal path along an avenue of poplars, using ski sticks to propel himself.

A little — ravishing — graffiti to suggest that beige is not Milton Keynes’ only colour.

A pair of swans gliding along followed by their brood of nine cygnets.

Endless parkland with the occasional outcrop of houses and flats. It all looks remarkably like the sets I remember in Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451: a setting for a perfectly authoritarian society.

A distant hum of traffic. Children’s voices rising behind hedges.

A pair of equestrians on horseback who might or might not have been mounted police. They were numbered: 28 and 29.

A motorway overpass, lapped by stretches of grass thick with tiny daisies turned to catch the occasional bursts of sun.

A heron eyeing the water with ecclesiastical intent.

And then a peculiarly English phenomenon: sixty men each sitting about a boat length (which is to say, 15 metres) or so apart along the bank, fishing.

It was a competition, held often in these parts, on Sundays. The angler to land the heaviest catch wins. Not the biggest fish. There are few big fish in the canals. But dozens and dozens and dozens of small fish, tiny little bream (I think), some no longer than a couple of inches.

No fish is discarded. Once caught, they’re tossed into a giant concertina net hanging in the water at the side of each fisherman. At the end of the day, they’re tipped into a scale, and weighed by the umpires.

We chugged very slowly down the centre of the canal. To begin with, I tried to stay as far away from the anglers as possible, until I was told in no uncertain terms that the fish they seek take refuge on the far side of the canal, and my creeping along that side stirred up the mud and upset their prey.

“What sort of catch will win today,” I asked one fisherman in lowered tones, fearing that even my raised voice might disturb the anglers, or the fish, or both.

“Agh,” he said, “about twenty five pound.”

If each fish weighed on average, let’s be generous, two ounces, then twenty five pound of fish would be 200 fish.

It struck me that amongst the sixty people competing, there was not a single woman. I called out to another fisherman: “Why don’t women fish?”

“That’s a very good question,” he said, “and very well presented…” And then, after a pause, just as we were moving out of earshot: “I have no idea what the answer is.”

It took fifteen or twenty minutes to pass the long line of hunters. During that time we saw a great many fish being caught, tiddlers as I say, wriggling furiously as their captors deftly removed the hooks from their mouths, and popped them into what my researches tell me are called sanctuary nets.

Anglers

I wondered how many of these little fish had been caught before. Perhaps there are amongst them veterans of these competitions, who’ve been caught two, three, four… perhaps dozens of times before. They could have turned the experience into myth. “Then,” a grandfather tiddler tells his multitudinous offspring, “a great force pulled me out of the world and into a bright and glorious place…”

All that effort, I thought – the sanctuary nets, the catapults (to drive fish food across the canal to draw likely candidates into a caucus), the carbon-fiber rods, which I understand can each cost thousands of pounds, the specialized seats with built-in drawers for the storage of maggots (pink) and maggots (blue) – and all to catch a fish weighing an ounce or two, at most…

And then, before my very disbelieving eyes, a fisherman drew towards his hand-held net a fish of enormous proportions. In fact, it wouldn’t fit into the net at all! He snatched a larger net from somewhere behind him, flipped the fish into it and held it up for other anglers along the line of the canal to admire.

A prodigy of a bream. Like something out of a Japanese fairy tale. The sort of fish that possesses the power to grant wishes, and dole out punishment. A prince amongst fish.

By the time I realized I should have been photographing it, and not gawking, Patience had glided by, and you’ll have to be satisfied, as I am, with this reconstruction…

We are moored now at The Globe, a pub just a mile or two from Leighton Buzzard. In one of our books published as guides to narrowboats on the canal, I had written on a previous trip, alongside this spot: “Lovely looking pub and great moorings.”

The moorings are indeed good. As to the pub, well, Trish and I are about to savour its delights. She will, no doubt, have a small red wine, and as for me, well, some local ale, appropriately dark and creamy, will suffice.

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