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A daydream I know but perhaps along with the new garden villages, the government could consider commissioning new canals? Picture Credit: Fiona Dunlop (www.fionadunlop.com)

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The Challenges of Green Living: Life on a narrowboat

Paul Miles

9th February, 2017

We should resurrect the 1940s plans for a Grand Contour Canal - a 100ft-wide waterway that would have followed the 300ft contour line around England from Newcastle to London to Southampton and many places in-between - and then we could all travel more pleasurably, writes PAUL MILES

Let's hope the government's proposed 14 new garden villages are less car-focussed. People need places to live that prioritise pedestrians and bikes rather than simply accommodate them

There is no progress on the dog front. If anything I am going backwards. Can I afford it? All the vets bills, insurance and food? And with a dog comes entropy. A narrowboat is a small space and a labrador is a big dog. A big dog that likes getting wet and sheds lots of hair. I know from experience that within a very short time, a labrador (or two) can render my boat into utter chaos - chaos with the aroma of wet dog. When I know their tenure is only for a few weeks that's no problem but a forever dog means a forever mess. I'm not changing my mind; it's just that I haven't made it up yet.

So, with the help of the Internet, I'll keep pursuing the part-time dog-sharing option. Not that I've had any joy yet. Dog-owners want commitment it seems, not some floosie who's just passing through in search of casual dates.

In the real world - if you can call Milton Keynes that - I met a man with 11 dogs: spaniels, papillons, mongrels. In a dimly lit underpass, they were all off their leads, milling around him, yapping. All 11 undesirable mutts were his he said. He had adopted them all. He yelled at them while pushing a dog-cage on wheels, which contained bags of poo and more empty bags ready to be deployed. The encounter did nothing to inspire me to adopt a dog. Look where it might lead. It was like a scene from Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

Milton Keynes is 50 this year (www.mk50.co.uk). The road is an essential backbone in the design of Britain's largest ‘new town'. The centre of this Buckinghamshire metropolis is like one big office car park. Originally, there were plans for trams but the money ran out and so the central district's boulevards have wide central strips, not used for anything much, not even gardens. In the surrounding conurbation - an amalgamation of villages - the ‘redways' (pedestrian and cycle routes) constantly duck under roads. Granted, 50 years ago it was foresighted to include cycle-ways at all but let's hope the government's proposed 14 new garden villages are less car-focussed. People need places to live that prioritise pedestrians and bikes rather than simply accommodate them.

In my narrowboat home, I have just cruised along the Grand Union canal around Milton Keynes. The waterway skirts the town as if planners decided it should serve as a boundary rather than a feature.

A daydream I know but perhaps along with the new garden villages, the government could consider commissioning new canals? Instead of spending billions on HS2 so that a privileged few can travel faster we could resurrect 1940s plans for a Grand Contour Canal on which we travel more pleasurably. This 100ft-wide waterway would follow the 300ft contour line around England from Newcastle to London to Southampton and many places in-between. What fun it would be to commute to work by passenger boat.

I am about the same age as Milton Keynes. The closest I have come to car ownership was when I shared a 2CV with a friend for a year in my 20s. Bicycle, public transport, my narrowboat and Shanks's pony are how I get around the country. I hate cars. On my continuous cruising of the 2,000 miles of waterways in England and Wales, I find mooring spots away from roads and the sound of traffic. But no matter how remote, there is invariably a background thrum of wheels on tarmac and boy racers giving it some throttle. The noise and reminder of constant, fast movement is stressful. A narrowboat life is all about being slow and quiet. It epitomises ‘hygge', the Danish concept of cosiness and contentment that has become a huge marketing gimmick this winter, prompting people to drive to superstores to buy all things ‘hygge' - candles and furry hot water bottles.

The busy roads are a bane of this country. They are not only noisy and dangerous but car exhausts of nitrogen dioxide and fine particulates cause respiratory illnesses and tens of thousands of premature deaths annually. Recent studies also link living close to traffic with dementia (http://www.nhs.uk/news/2017/01January/Pages/People-who-live-near-busy-roads-have-higher-dementia-rates.aspx) and obesity (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25710788). I am fortunate enough to be able to go for days on end without ever venturing near a road. My mind and waistline need all the help they can get.

When I do venture onto tarmac, from my perspective as a cyclist it seems that many car drivers treat the roadside as their litter bin. Waysides are strewn with cans and bottles and fast food packaging. Not that canals are immune to this problem. Although my present mooring spot in rural Northamptonshire is relatively litter-free, there are stretches of towpath where the bushes are stuffed with rubbish. Why come to such a place, away from the rush of 21st century life, where ‘nature' has a foothold, and then leave your litter? It saddens me.

I must take inspiration from some words by Norwegian eco-philosopher, Arne Naess: 'Should the world's misery and the approaching ecocatastrophe make one sad?' he questions. 'The remedy against sadness caused by the world's misery is to do something about it.'

A few cans and crisp packets are hardly an ecocatastrophe but litter's abundance proves how many people are disconnected from the environment. Much of the rubbish blows into the canal and ends up in the sea to join the tons of plastic waste in our oceans. This knowledge and the jarring ugliness definitely affects my state of mind. I must do more litter picking. It's an excuse for a walk too. Instead of taking a black labrador, I can take a black bin bag and my litter grabber. ‘Come on, walkies!' I'll say to the bin-bag, and we'll amble along together in the winter sun.

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Paul Miles is the Ecologist's new Green Living columnist

 

 

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