When we first started living in London on our narrowboat, one of the things that delighted me the most were the trading boats.
These wherry-men were the savvy individuals who had cottoned onto the increasing popularity of boat life and adjusted their business plan accordingly.
The great grandfather of this river genealogy is a man that goes by the name of Paul.
Paul has a beautiful old boat – a nineteenth century coal barge. For this reason most of the boat has no roof, though there is a beam running across the top held aloft by two beautifully carved wooden triangles joined to the boat. There is a separate engine room with shutters which skippers usually leave open to cool the engine. Then there is a small living quarters. In the large space where coal would have once been piled in small, black mountains; Paul carries an assortment of the odds and ends of boating life: 13 kg Calor gas bottles, smokeless coal and red diesel. If you’re lucky he might do you a pump-out, although this is becoming increasingly rare these days.
When we were experiencing engine distress in Kensal Rise I met a young man called Dominic. He told me that when he broke down, a river courier that he knew would top up his water.
“I didn’t even need to ask,” he said. “I just told him to top me up whenever he went by.”
Obviously, when you are broken down, running out of water is a very real and threatening proposition.
But those are bygone days. The river couriers, perhaps once behaved like an ambulance service to distressed boats, helping in an assortment of less profitable ways by doing pump-outs and topping up with water. Now, however, even on the river, the principle of capital reigns supreme. I have heard some boaters complain that river couriers only stop for women, or only stop if you make several purchases at once.
Renée is the name of Paul’s adopted river son. He is French; he growls rather than speaks, his face is pitted and weather-beaten; his eyes glisten and his hair is a shaggy, oily mane of black ringlets.
The precise nature of the relationship between these two men is uncertain: but of one thing all boaters can agree, Paul was there first. So they are not exactly business associates or partners, they do not work as a team. But somebody suggested to me that Renée rents his boat from the older man who allows him to ply his own trade on the river front. I met these men both on the Western branch or concourse of the Grand Union Canal, but their remit is vast: at the beginning of one week they will be in Kensal Rise and by the end of the week they will have already made it to Limehouse Cut. Because of all the precious cargo on their boats they do not moor on the tow-path, but ‘piggy-back’ onto other boats. They are shape-shifters, nomads; forever on the move, ploughing the same familiar terrain across the wingspan of London.
I met Jack more recently. He is the friendliest river courier we have yet to meet, and he has a sort of mutually beneficial agreement with Gideon. The boat he pilots is called ‘The Archimedes’, it has a handsome blue finish and it is a historic boat, built in 1935.
I cannot speak of historic boats without telling a little story about one of our earliest, most enchanting boating encounters. We were cruising the water-course between Brentford Lock and the Western branch of the Grand Union Canal. We had just finished luncheon in a pub called The Fox (highly recommended) at the foot of the Hanwell stairs – a flight of seven locks. We were half-way up the flight when we saw a girl running down stream – she had come ahead as a scout. As their craft was so broad, she told us, they would wait at the top of the stairs for us to pass.
Eventually we passed the mysterious craft, so broad that it took up the entire diameter of a lock. A crew of six or seven people were walking about agitatedly, some with long barge poles in their hands. It didn’t look like anything I had ever seen before: it was very flat and square, the colour of carnation red and there was hardly any space for living quarters. I couldn’t understand what it was; it looked more like a vast gondolier than a coal-barge.
A girl with olive skin and a swirl of black sari wrapped around her head explained across the water, “It’s an old puppet theatre! Every year we do the historic trip from Brentford Lock to Paddington Basin.” They were on their way to Richmond they told me. Later I found out that this magical marionette theatre had been established on the barge for twenty-five years and we have caught the company during their annual tour of the River Thames.
And so it was. They got there in the end, and came back, even though the bottom of their boat sagged to the bottom of the shallow canal and the rudder become engorged with mud. A few weeks later I saw a sign in Paddington Basin advertising the travelling water-boat shows.
The river couriers are men of every season. In frost, in sun and snow they patiently chug along the rivers and canals, lock by lock, boat by boat. Their trade is in the mineral and elemental properties of life: fuel, coal, food. Through their livelihoods they are a reincarnation of the old spirit of the river, harking back to a time when traders and merchants would regularly ply the waters with trade, or courier heavy loads of goods through London. It is like experiencing a flash of industrial or pre-industrial Britain, they hey-day of the canal artery system. The river couriers have established a basic economy on water and hence the first rudiments of a canal-side society. They are the embodiment of the past made present and active; joyfully anachronistic, inspiringly free.