Bath to Bradford-on-Avon
Out the window of the 10:42 to Cardiff: feathered grasses, rolling hills and fields, wheels of hay, grazing sheep, a knot of cows. The river is a faint slip of blue beyond a screen of leaves. Here we are: blue plush seats, mid-morning travelers—mums with children, college students, older men and us, tourists—grasping for image, for the detail we’ll remember, for some authentic thing. We’re riders on a fairground carousel, stretching, straining, arms extended, out of balance, reaching for that brassy ring.
Bradford to Avoncliffe
In Bradford we rent bicycles, follow the dirt path down the hill behind the pub to the canal. It is like entering a verdant tunnel: shaggy grass and mossy water, overhung with willows, hawthorn, weeds. Narrow boats moored along the edge. We swing our legs over our bikes and ride.
A canal: the river nudged into a channel, routed over aqueducts, funneled into locks, a towpath rolled and staked. It is 1797. Stonecutters, masons, ironmongers, surveyors, mapmakers, cattle drivers, navvies—any man strong enough to wield a shovel or a pick can join the crew. Palms cut raw by ropes, backs bent beneath the rain and sun. Hacking through open rock and beds of clay. Hauling wooden wheelbarrows of dirt and stone. Twelve years, it will take, to engineer and dig the trench, to construct the aqueducts and locks. By the time it’s done, it will be nearly obsolete, trade and travel already given over to the train. The men dig and dig. A clay-caked boot stomps on a spade, a heave, a shove. The earth gives way. Far below, the river roils free. Tumbles over falls.
Avoncliffe to Limpley Stoke
The water is milky-green, opaque in sunlight, darker, dappled, in the shade. A moving, secret thing. The temptation of the water: its surface and its underneath.
I am thinking of Ophelia, hair streaming like pondweed snagged on a floating log, her drowned face bloated, greenish in the watery light.
The other day, on the Avon near the Pulteney Bridge in Bath, we watched a group of divers tipping backwards off a rubber launch. Tanks and snorkels, wetsuits, fins. A rope line to the bank. Were they practicing, we wondered? Or searching? If so, for what? And then we watched them haul it up, long and heavy, wrapped in a plastic sheet. Did they find it lodged in silt, weighted down by rocks, or caught along a mooring line—just there, beneath the place the tour boats dock, beyond the ducks?
Limpley Stoke to Dundas Aqueduct
On the flat rooftops of narrow boats: wooden stumps, a rusty bike, a garden gnome, a folding chair, a wheelbarrow, solar panels, pots of grass and marigolds, a coiled hose, a string of Buddhist prayer flags, a broom, a barge pole, a propane tank, an anchor, a fishing rod, a grinning gargoyle, a plastic jug, a pile of sticks, a stroller, a satellite dish, a life preserver, a rainbow pinwheel, a kettle grill, a stuffed brown bird, a child’s floppy doll.
Dundas to Avoncliffe
The noontime breeze is rising, nudging puffs of cumulus across the sky. Time runs faster, going back. Water runs downhill. There’s the gate, the pub, the sign, the lock. There’s the narrow boat we passed an hour or so ago, still chugging on its way. The pilot at the tiller waves. His wife, sitting in the bow, reading a book, does not look up.
We ride past the Medusa, the Firefly, Foxglove, Titanic, Serendipity, Lady Eleanor, Topsy Annie, l’Escargot, Serenity. Some people live on narrow boats. Some are just on holiday. Some are just adrift.
Smells of weeds and river water, honeysuckle, cowbane, rose. A whiff of diesel, the stink of a latrine. Drifting cigarette smoke, toast. A clump of horse shit. Smells of dust and mud and rain.
In a narrow boat, you can follow the canal for fifty-seven miles, from the Thames at Reading all the way to Bath. You’ll pass through twenty-seven locks, including sixteen in a row at Caen Hill, Devizes. On foot, you’d have to walk for days.
Avoncliffe to Bradford-on-Avon
And now we’re looking at our watches, pedaling harder, thinking about returning our bikes before the deadline, whether we’ll have time for lunch, whether we can make the 13:21 return to Bath. The railway clock—the now and future—the travelers’ impatient tick-tick-tick—have overtaken river time, swamped it, drowned it out. We are turning off the towpath, pumping up the hill. What will we remember? At the road, I turn around, look back, but there are only houses, buses, shop fronts, cars. It’s gone—the boats, the flowing water, the walkers, drifters, cyclists, the ancient aqueducts and locks— all vanished, like the midway at the fairgrounds after the carnival is gone, folded up and packed away and vanished, as if it was never there at all.