We have been looking forward to today for absolutely ages – our trip with our Questers group on a canal boat along the Wey and Arun Canal.
When it comes to messing about on a boat, I’ve read The Wind in the Willows more than once so I reckon I know all there is to know about it. I will be Ratty (relaxed and friendly, with literary pretensions and a life of leisure,
according to good old Wikipedia), Mr B can be Mr Toad (good-natured and kind-hearted but prone to obsessions) and our trip organiser will make a truly splendid Moley (mild-mannered and initially overwhelmed by the noise and the bustle of the riverbank.)
It is a little disappointing to wake up to overcast skies and the threat of rain. This is not as we planned it. We are not daunted, however, and set off with our
Google directions and a packet of Werther Originals on our way to Loxwood. Ah, Loxwood – doesn’t that sound like the place where Rupert Bear lived? No, actually, it was Nutwood, now I come to think of it, but I was pretty close. Nutwood is described
as “any idyllic English village” and that sums up Loxwood pretty well too.
We arrive in the car park of the Onslow Arms to join the rest of the Questers
– there are fifty of us altogether. The landlord of the Onslow Arms serves us up with coffees to keep us going and takes our lunch orders and cash. It must be his lucky day. Then we are off to find our canal boat which goes by the fanciful name of Wiggonholt.
I spend a little while trying to guess who or what Wiggonholt might be and I am a trifle disappointed to find out that it’s the name of a nearby village.
Wiggonholt was brand new in 2009, can accommodate up to 50 passengers and is wider than the conventional narrowboat. I know this because I have helped myself to an explanatory leaflet from the Visitor Information Centre, where I also buy a postcard (with a
picture of Wiggonholt on it) for my Little Welsh Boys. Mr B is keen that I stop messing about in the Information Centre because everyone else is lining up to board our boat and he is keen to secure us a good seat. This is something you need to know
about Mr B – you will never, ever find him at the back of a queue.
Thanks to my dalliance with the postcard selection, we miss out on the seat at the
very front but we manage to grab the very next table. We order coffee and biscuits. Mr B says we have only just had a cup of coffee in the bar at the Onslow Arms but I remind him that every penny we spend on the boat or in the shop will go towards the restoration
of the canal. Mr B says I am just thinking of my stomach, as per usual. Hardly fair, I think – though the oaty biscuits were, indeed, quite delicious.
we’re off! It’s a slow and stately progress we make along the canal. I keep my eyes skinned in the search for some river life but apart from a few of what I think are called skater beetles and a dragon fly or two, there’s not much to be seen.
I suspect that all the river creatures are huddled away in their hideaways, waiting for the rain to stop. The wild flowers are, however, beautiful, especially the spectacular yellow flags, growing tall and straight along the river bank. I try to take a photo
through the window but it doesn’t come out very well. Mr B refrains from saying that he told me so. I am thankful for small mercies.
Now here’s a fine
sight. We have arrived at Baldwins Knob. This causes us considerable unwarranted hilarity at the expense of certain absent members of our family until our guide tells us that “knob” is an old Sussex word for a small hill. What a spoil-sport he
is. Baldwin, incidentally, was probably a local farmer. What he grew on his knob is not known. At Baldwins Knob we travel through the second of the locks along this stretch of canal. I love locks. I marvel at the thought that somebody once decided that
a canal needed to go downstairs and upstairs and worked out how to do it.
We aren’t allowed out on deck to watch all the clever stuff going on (imagine all
50 of us crowding around) but I watch out of my window as the water levels rise or fall. The crew jump on and off the boat with studied and sure-footed nonchalance.
B wonders if the crew members ever get bored, going up and down the canal with their boats full of passengers. Of course they don’t, I tell him – these are people with a dream. In 1816 you could travel all the way from Littlehampton to London
via the Wey & Arun Canal. Then along came the railways and scuppered all that. Today, something like 3000 volunteers are working to restore the canal and they all share the same dream. There it is, printed on the back
of the postcard I’m sending to my Little Welsh Boys: “Restoring London’s Lost Route to the Sea.”
It's big, bold, brave and brilliant. Like all the best dreams...