A sense of place – falling in love with a boatyard

What makes somewhere feel comfortable? Why do we feel at home in certain places, and out of sorts in others? We can fall in love with places just as well as with people, and some of the processes are the same, I think.

I’ve been thinking about this, both as part of the ‘Home’ project that  Jo Roberts and I are working on, and through reading more about psychogeography . But the major impetus comes from a recent encounter with a boat yard. I’m involved, in a small way, with the restoration of a narrowboat, and have spent a few weekends sanding, scraping and sketching near Saul Junction, on the Gloucester and Sharpness canal.

This enormous old engine cheerfully guards the entrance from the car park.

This enormous old engine cheerfully guards the entrance from the car park.

There I am surrounded by boats of all sorts in various stages between construction and disintegration; rows of engines, from shiny to rusted beyond use; planks, cans, tools, ropes, gangways, drums, rags; an amazing jumble of ‘stuff ‘– in ordered piles or collapsing heaps where nettles and oil have reached a stand off. IMG_0018

This is a land of projects, overseen by an enormous crane routinely swinging a boat or an engine overhead. The most visible projects include the ‘pirate café’, rising to daring heights on the base of a river boat, with a life-size pirate at the helm and the ice cream refrigerator leading the way below decks; a former RNLI lifeboat, now being repainted in ‘rescue orange’: the restoration of various elderly narrowboats, motor cruisers, and something that looks to me like a small trawler.

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Then there are the less visible – boats shrouded in plastic, mysterious tents under which men disappear for hours, or the business of boatbuilding itself in large industrial sheds.; and all around, the routine maintenance of canal life – hull surveys, jet washing, and blacking boat bottoms . It took me a while to realise that the plastic garden chairs with sawn down legs, spattered in bitumen, were a vital part of the action!

At first sight it appears unruly, unkempt and chaotic, but no – there are men who know what is happening in every corner, who are chatting with owners, assessing damage, planning repairs, organising, advising, bantering. They are the business, these men who know about engines, gearboxes, welding, tools, boats – craftsmen and experts in their trade.

It is another country, but one that I have visited in the past. There are no iPads or laptops, very few mobile phones, no shops, cafes, restaurants, or retail outlets. There is nothing to do but get on with the project, joke about others’, watch the passing traffic on the canal or admire the resident dog as it climbs ladders that it can’t get down. There is a great sense of relief to leave behind 2015 and the world of David Cameron et al.

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There is a degree of shouting and swearing, mainly at the apprentice, but it feels ritual rather than aggressive. Most of the time the conversations are about engines, boats, boaters and sport. The swearing might be toned down in deference to the presence of any ‘ladies’, but this too feels familiar – the stuff of my childhood, ‘normal’ and unthreatening, where men held doors open for women who accepted it as their due.

The more I thought about, the more I realised that how much this other country echoed my past. I was fortunate in that the ‘menfolk’ of my childhood were in my eyes protective rather than persecutory or aggressive; the fixers, the craftsmen, the main wage earners,the respectable working class. It was only later that another, less benign side of all this became clear. I suspect another side would probably emerge in the boatyard too, if I spent more than a brief time there! But for now I love it!

I’ve written before about ‘resonance’ in our relationships – that very complex process whereby we recognise, or think we do, unspoken affinities or aversions; a map, only partly conscious, that guides our choices of who we stand next to at a function, who we avoid on the bus, who we want to spend time with, or who we fall in love with. The map is constructed through time from the experiences and materials of our personal and physical environments; we recognise familiar scenes and scents in some deep recess of our being way before we come to understand our responses.

Just as there is always more to discover in our relationships to people, our reactions to places can teach us a thing or two as well!

 

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2 thoughts on “A sense of place – falling in love with a boatyard

  1. nesbitteleanor

    A wonderful piece, Chris. Particularly interesting for me, as two friends have just published their poems together as ‘Narrowboat Music’ and I have discovered a stammering neighbour has a library of canal literature. Very best wishes Eleanor

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