Thursday, 27 August 2009

Near death escape

OK, OK I give in, I'll tell a tale of my past. I'm very flattered that you all seem to want to know about me, so.....

I was 19 years old, a 1st year student nurse. I was blissfully in love with David, we had started going out when I was 17 and he was 20, and would continue to do so until I was 22 and I ended our relationship as he wanted to get married and I wanted to see more of the world. It took me many, many years to stop thinking about him, my first love.

Anyway I digress, we decided to go on holiday together, it was the first holiday I'd ever taken without my parents, so it was exciting in all sorts of ways.

We were canal and river mad, so we decided to hire a little boat just big enough for two and set off. OK, I know most of you are not from the UK and don't know where places are, so this story happens in the Midlands, starting in a county called Worcestershire, going up to Birmingham, which is England's second city and back to Worcs in a circle. We went through some beautiful towns like Evesham and Tewkesbury on the river and went on the canals through the heart of the industrial midlands around Birmingham.

One of the most scary sights had been in the middle of Birmingham, when the canal was next to an old soap factory, the water usually a murky brown was completely soap green in this stretch of the canal, with absolutely nothing growing at the side of the canal at all. It was strange like floating down through an endless bath where the soap has dissolved in the water. We stayed close from the edges of the boat, this was not a place to fall in at all.

To get into Birmingham there is a motorway system called Spaghetti Junction there are layers and layers of motorway going off in many different directions. We, in our little boat chugged under this and were amazed to find that actually there were several canal junctions too spreading out like a spiders web under Spaghetti Junction.

Our little boat was a 14 foot cruiser, it had only one cabin and a cockpit. Inside the cabin was a very small toilet and wash basin in a big cupboard and the rest of the cabin was one. There was a tiny stove with two gas rings and a grill underneath. And if you wanted to use the sink, you had to wait for the cooker to cool down and lift it up as the sink was hiding underneath.

There were two benches either side of the cabin with a table ,which at night we made up into our bed. We had sleeping bags that we had put together so we could cuddle up close.

We had many adventure on this holiday, from the thunder storm that broke over us and we were scared of being in a boat on the water, and we ran holding hands to a nearby bridge and hide underneath it until the storm had passed. Another time, I was cooking spaghetti for our supper. I couldn't drain the water down the sink I was using the gas rings, so I took the saucepan to the edge of the boat and promptly lost the whole contents overboard!!

We were very happy, and were happy with our allotted tasks, I would open the lock gates and David would steer the boat, which I had no confidence to do.

So it was the penultimate day of our holiday, the boat had to be back in the boatyard by midday the following day. Ahead of us was a tunnel a mile long, followed by a flight of locks, called the Tardebigge Flight, I can't remember exactly how many locks there are here, but it's somewhere between 15 and 20, one after the other in quick succession.

We had plenty of time,so setting off after breakfast we started, eventually the tunnel came in sight. Now the canal system is Victorian, and in the days when it was a working environment the canal barges were towed by horses, and when they reached the tunnels the horses would be walked over the top of the tunnel, and the men operating the barge would leg it on their backs along the length of the tunnel. Therefore there is no path in the tunnels, and the roof is low to have allowed the men to use their legs to propel the barges forward.

We went into the tunnel and I didn't like it, we had only torch light to guide us, and so I went into the cabin and hoped for it all to be over soon. David was of course steering the boat, but the water in this tunnel was very static and full of debris. So he had to keep stopping to move the next obstacle out of our way.

He got the boat hook, (a long pole with a hook on the end) to move the door (?) that was now in our way. As he got the hook he accidentally caught the flex that was attached to the light inside the cabin to it's energy source, a car battery.

He looked back and saw flames starting to come out of the hold where the battery was. He yelled for me to get out of the cabin. There we were half way down this tunnel,with static oil laden water, 100 ft below ground, with flames starting to leap out. In this hold there were also all the polythene that had covered our sleeping bags and any other trash that we were storing.

What were we going to do, this wasn't a place to escape from at all. Then my brain kicked in and I grabbed the fire extinguisher. I'd never used one in my life, but I'd been to a fire lecture at work recently, and it had obviously gone in what I was supposed to do. I took the pin out and hit the top, it wouldn't work, I hit it again, Oh Thank God it worked, the flames by this time were about 10 foot high.

The fire extinguisher worked it put out the flames, we were saved.

We got to the end of the tunnel somehow, fortunately we were not injured and apart from a lot of melted polythene and a very knackered car battery there was no residual damage.

We moored the boat and left all the damaged stuff on the bank (it was the days before awareness of leaving rubbish anywhere!) But after a quick hug we had to get back on the boat and go through all these bloody locks. We were terrified of not getting the boat back on time. Fortunately it was high summer as we were still going through locks at 10pm that night.

But we got through, we got to the boatyard we were ok.

The next year we went on again with two friends, a slightly different route, but one that took in the tunnel and the Tardebigge. This time we were on a substantially bigger barge. The chaps did the steering, and had the boat hook to hand with the boats search light trained on the water. The other woman was just helping as she could, and me.... well I hid in my bunk waiting to get out.
Locks....On canals a single boat widths chamber that water is put in and allowed out to get the boat to a higher or lower level. There are hundreds and hundreds of miles of naviagable waterways in Britain. And when the canal near the Olympic stadium is complete it will be possible to got from the river Thames in London all the way up to Manchester in the north of England by water


lakeviewer said...

Oh what an adventure! And you told it so well, full of details of near misses. How fun to share this. I had no idea many rivers in England would be navigable. Locks?

Paula said...

Quite an adventure. I love nagivating on rivers and channels... if I ever will make it I will certainly remember your story ;-))

Merry ME said...

Rivers and locks in England? Who knew? I thought that was Venice or the Netherlands.

I admire your ability to keep on keeping on. I would have been of the barge with the rubbish and ask that David pick me up in a car for the trip home. But then again we do many things in the name of love that surprise us when we are old and wise (and jaded?!)

nitebyrd said...

What a great adventure to have! You are calm in a crisis, you amazing woman!

Susan DeAngelis said...

Is there anything better than a peaceful journey?


Linda - Gold Coast said...

I know who I would want on my team in a crisis situation. Keeping level headed was indeed very important that day. You gave an excellent description of events and I felt as though I was reliving it with you. Great story and I love a happy ending. Linda xoxo

Val said...

what a story! dont like the sound of that tunnel. good for you going back thru it AGAIN. So great all those canal systems are still useable.well done on the clear headedness too with the fire extinguisher - amazing what adrenalin can do :-)

karen said...

I've been catching up on your posts. wow!that tunnel sounds terrifying. Very adventurous, I enjoyed your description...
The house is looking beautiful, too!

e said...

Wow! This is an amazing glad for the happy ending and I wish you happy beginnings in the days ahead.

trousers said...

Fantastic story - scary for you, obviously, but great to read. Thanks for sharing!


swallowtail said...

whew! I am so glad that you survived to tell the tale! and I read it like it happened yesterday! now I need a scoop of ice cream.

speck of dust said...

I've always fancied a canal boat holiday...but after reading your experience...and I also heard recently about 2 couples who got stuck in a lock and managed to sink the entire boat...I'm not so sure.

Angela said...

I`m looking forward to hear more tales from you, Mandy! And just plan anew if necessary, time doesn`t matter to me. Just so you make it!