Perhaps the most commonly recurring feature of a winter on London’s waterways is to round a bend or rise up a lock and meet Indus and Pictor on their journeys. A pair of fuel boats, operated by a small group of extremely amiable Poles, forever on the roam, from Brentford and Uxbridge to Hertford and Bishops Stortford and all places between. Their schedule unknowable, a ‘take it as it comes’ attitude, and a wide range of operation. And yet on almost every trip I make they appear, all skinny as can be, with at least one very well fed dog on the cabin tops, shouting “How are you, my friend?” and raising their hats.
I saw them moored up at Little Venice and popped the question.
“Can I join you for a day?”
“You are most welcome! Tomorrow, we go to Camden and to Islington. The wind is too much today so we stop here.”
And so, I returned to Camden the next morning and joined Indus and Pictor below the bottom lock. Now the spring is here, and the load has lightened a little, the current crew is two men both called Tomek and their enormous guard dog and general good luck totem, Lucky. I stepped on as Steerer Tomek brought the pair in, and Lucky gave one enormous booming woof.
“Is ok, is ok.” Said Steerer Tomek to the dog, before addressing me. “Go round the outside away from him.”
Indus and Pictor were breasted up as they usually are. Indus the motorboat, a powerful three-cylinder Ruston Hornsby thumping away within, and Pictor the butty boat and main cabin. The traditional boatman’s cabin here has been expanded with a large pod that provides extra living space. The drawback of this is that when loaded, the butty tilts forward in the water somewhat like a plow with the cargo predominantly forward of centre.
Steerer Tomek worked the speed-wheel continuously, adjusting every few seconds. There was a fierce wind and awaiting a new delivery of coal the pair ran high in the water, light and tall sided, a sail for the wind, which blew them around in unpredictable ways. There was no consistency to it, with the waterway winding beneath embankments and buildings, and a gust could appear from anywhere and any direction. The other Tomek spent his time at the front fending off obstacles with a long pole and progress was hard. It was a difficult day.
On the mid deck of Pictor, a large speaker was plugged in. It was pumping out disco classics at a volume high enough to cut through over the exhaust of the engine. For a while, as we served a customer and the engine idled, the four stroke tickover became a perfect backbeat.
The disco accompaniment set the mood. A disco cormorant flew by. Disco dogs walked along the towpath. A feelgood atmosphere prevailed. After a few customers we approached St Pancras cruising club.
“Not going in the marina. No. I’m on top of the water! Blow about too much. Too much trouble.”
On top of the water. It was a lovely way of putting it. Experienced boaters are always so aware of how their boat relates to the water. Tomek was unloaded and too high and was struggling against a fierce wind. How much easier it would be to be in the water rather than on it.
At St Pancras lock, Steerer Tomek went inside to change the music whilst other Tomek and I worked the lock. As we raised the paddles, the speaker began playing smooth saxophone classics, and Lucky stood up proudly on the butty cabin top, like it was his personal playlist. A workman came out of the lock cottage, where my Australian friends had clearly now moved into full renovation mode, and looked at Lucky, seemingly on his own by the speaker.
“Look at that dog. That’s the smoothest dog I’ve ever seen. It’s like he’s making a video for his dating profile.”
Below the lock was an absolute chaos of boats. The wind had found out every insecure mooring, every badly tied rope, every loose pin, every last unattached piece of junk. The sharp bend towards Kings Cross was unnavigable with a boat stretched right across it. Bearded and earnest young men were trying to pull it in and secure it and our journey became slow motion pinball. The famous book barge was away for repairs and had been replaced by a temporary book barge. The proprietor flagged us down for some coal. He too had a speaker playing smooth saxophone classics, and as I dropped the coal off and stood in the difffusion zone between the two it felt very surreal indeed.
Steerer Tomek was approaching the end of his current stint on the boats and would be handing over to another steerer in a few days. It’s an intense and unremitting life, coal-boating every day, and he was looking forward to a break.
The wind was so strong that the pair had to go at 15 degrees to the canal to make forwards progress, and we inched through the eco-moorings towards the tunnel. At the portal, Steerer Tomek put the bows of the pair into the tunnel so that nobody would gazump us from the other end, then led Lucky round the cabin tops, into the deck well of the butty, Pictor, and inside. I went inside with other Tomek to wait out the journey under Islington hill.
It is a privilege to be invited into another boat’s cabin. It is an intensely private space, a privacy that not everyone respects. Cameras come round the door of Spey sometimes, and although I never deny anyone who asks first, I come down heavy on those who assume they can invade my home without first talking to me. I knew I was lucky to be in such a space and did not photograph it out of respect.
The pod was basic, but also practical and homely. A toasty range was set up, with the ruined remains of a once grand armchair by it. A large dress mirror on its side ran along one wall, and a bed was tucked under the mid deck. Lucky occupied most of the floor, spread out once again like a meat duvet, and growled at me when I tried to say hello. I was tolerated, not welcomed. On the wall was a card from a distant partner, ‘Big Birthday Hugs’ and by it a sign that read ‘Danger, 400 volts’. A lucky horseshoe sat on top of the range.
The far end of the tunnel was announced by the big speaker kicking back into life as signal was recovered and Spotify resumed streaming to it, and we emerged to a serenade of saxophones and drumbeats.
At City Road lock, their journey was done for the day. Rather than a three-day mad dash for maximum tonnage like Clover and Emu, Indus and Pictor roam a little each day, racking up the miles slowly, appearing for those customers that forgot to place orders elsewhere, forever going up the lock just ahead. Politeness and friendliness their calling cards, a pair of boats that never single out, a raft of coal that appears when you least expect it and most need it, with a knack to appearing exactly when they’re really needed.
If you are enjoying these blogs, then please feel free to make a small contribution to my tipjar or visit my online shop, where my previous books and albums are for sale. I’m enormously grateful for all the support, it really makes a huge difference to me and allows me to continue writing like this.