Jason’s Trip – Where There’s Brass

Little Venice is the public face of the London canal system. It has been kept clear of residential moorings, something of a sore point with much of the live-aboard community who regard it as further evidence of the creeping gentrification of London’s waterways. This triangle of canal that connects the Regents canal to the Paddington branch of the Grand Union canal, fitted as it is with a central island completely overrun with competing, bread stuffed, honking waterfowl, is one of the few places in London where a casual walker or tourist can directly engage with the canal and the various amenities it can offer, and I have no problem with places like this being kept clear of liveaboards, so long as those essential residential moorings are properly catered for elsewhere. There is a café boat, a floating puppet theater, hotel boats, a podcast boat, and several trip boats. From up the branch in Paddington one can hire an electric go-boat or dine on one of the restaurant boats. The water here is genuinely the focal point of the area, with plenty to see and do.

It all began with Jason’s trip in 1951. The original trip boat was an old wooden steamer called ‘Jason’, which ran until 1958 when it suffered the fate of nearly all wooden boats and rotted to pieces. It was replaced by a ‘Josher’, a Fellows Morton and Clayton boat, (reckoned to be ‘Portugal’ by name, although nobody seems entirely certain of this) which took on the ‘Jason’ name and duties, a service that has continued unbroken ever since. As the first and longest running trip boat on the UK canal network, I was honored to be invited for a day to see how it works.

Portugal had been built as a horse boat in 1906 and was motorized at Yarwoods in Cheshire in 1937, the same year as my boat, Spey, was built. It had even served briefly as a tanker in the Clayton’s fleet, but metal boats and tar never really seemed to get on, and it had soon left that service and was the ideal choice for the experimental trip boat traffic in London. Carrying passengers has been Jason’s job ever since 1958.

I arrived at Little Venice, picked up a coffee and waited. Jason’s space was empty, and the first run of the day was due back from Camden shortly.

James was on the tiller today. Like most skippering jobs around London, it’s a freelance role, and James can be found on many of the boats from time to time it seems. But Jason’s trip has a special place in his heart, as I was to learn.

He brought the boat under the road bridge and into Little Venice, swinging it round to the left and reversing smartly onto the mooring space. There were three trips today, right at the very start of the season, and the first had just been completed. Passengers from Little Venice to Camden, and then return. Commentary on the outward leg only.

Returning empty to Little Venice with Maida Hill tunnel in the background

The rain had cleared so James set about polishing the many pieces of brass as we waited for passengers to turn up. Jason’s trip is antiquated, largely catering to a walk-up, cash paying crowd, although cards and reservations are perfectly possible. It reminded me of the sort of day out my parents would have taken me on as a small boy.

The London Waterbuses were also out and about, and the trip boat season was underway in earnest.

Our other crew member was Sara, her job to take the money, organise the queue, and provide the commentary on the run to Camden. She exuded a kind of fierce competence, equal parts welcoming and formidable depending on what was required.

We picked up a dozen customers and cast off. James took the boat up to the tunnel and I briefly went into the engine room for safety. The back cabin is now a spacious engine room, Jason does not require any accommodation or catering, and I sat on the step and watched the engine power us through the darkness. As we emerged from Maida Hill, so did I.

“I enjoy doing this one.” Said James. “It doesn’t really pay as well as some of the other jobs, although we did get a rise this year, but there’s something more important about it.”

“Yeah?”

“It belongs to a tradition. Some of the trip boats, and Jason’s in particular have been going so long that they’re a direct link to the rich heritage and culture of narrowboating.”

“As in how it’s operated or how it looks?”

“Bit of both. They started it during carrying days, and the early skippers were all working boatmen. They brought their skills and ways of working to the boat, and that has been continued in the face of modern pressures like making money. It could make more, but it wouldn’t be right.”

“Like what specifically?”

“It still has a wooden bottom. Most of these have been converted to steel because it’s easier. We maintain the brass work, the roses on the doors, the signwriting. We run a historic engine. Ropes have to be handled and stored correctly. Everything is kept just so.”

Jason’s trip then is a direct link to the carrying days. A working boat of considerable age, still earning a daily living, handled and kept as it always has been, crewed by people who appreciate and value what it is, what it represents, and who actively participates in keeping the traditions alive, respectful of their place in the history of the waterways.

Camden

At Camden we offloaded our small but happy cargo and with nobody on for the return leg I was allowed the tiller. Through the railway underbridge with the ultraviolet lights to prevent drug users being able to identify a vein, past the always entirely occupied guest moorings, to the big turn. I was allowed to wind the engine right up on the run through Regent’s Park and the boat handled impeccably, cutting the water, planted neatly in the channel, just the right weight on the tiller. The only difficulty was the large wooden topped canopy that ran the length of the boat, significantly obstructing vision at the front end. At Maida Hill tunnel, Sara was concerned about me chipping the corners of the canopy, so I became determined to pilot the boat through flawlessly. James knew he could trust me and went into the hold for safety.

At Little Venice, I too swung Jason across to the left and reversed the boat back into the mooring.

“You did that better than me.” Said James. I didn’t, but it was nice of him to say it. Sara had the boat tied up in a flash, lightning quick coils of the rope, rhythmically falling into place.

“I started in 2001.” She told me. “Every year I resign. And here I am.”

On the next trip, I became a punter and enjoyed the commentary with the customers, clambering into the hold, now a piece of the cargo myself. Sara was excellent, a concise, informative, and interesting commentator. Some of the other trip boats focus on celebrities and who owns what, but Jason’s trip is about the canal and its relationship to the land and people around it. Jason is the perfect boat for it, exuding age and history, and Sara quickly sets the scene.

“Boats like this had a tiny cabin at the back and people lived in just that little space. No toilet, no shower, just a little coal range for cooking.”

I looked at the small children taking this in. Of course, nobody would live like that now.

At Camden, the skies opened, and it began to hammer it down. Jason has two canopies that fold out all along the sides and keep the worst of it out, almost like wings, ultimately widening the boat from 7ft to about 11ft. Navigating back would be more of a challenge than the time before, and for reasons of insurance it seemed better that I was kept away from the tiller.

We passed Jenny Wren, another trip boat that starts from Camden, and I spotted my friend Will taking his mum out for her birthday. He spotted me too and took a picture as the two trip boats moved away from one another.

We finished the final trip and there was time for a quick pint in the Warwick Castle, still the boaters’ pub. The continuity of the canal trade here and the overlap of the trip boats with the carrying days has meant that this tradition too has survived, and the Warwick Castle remains the place where boaters go when the work is done. James and I got a drink and made our way to the corner. Sara appeared soon, having locked up. It became clear that several of the punters around the room had a waterways connection. Nods were exchanged. Information on specific bits of canal shared. You wouldn’t know this at all if you just walked in off the street, but it became apparent that there were centuries of unlike waterways knowledge scattered around the room, loosely congregating here because that’s what you do, and so many other places no outside force has yet broken that chain.

In the carefully cultivated gloom of the Warwick Castle, I mused to myself that the traditions of the waterways are a tenuous thing. The links between past and present are few and far between now. It is not enough to preserve objects, as objects alone do not make a tradition. A tradition comes from knowing exactly how they work and what they do, why things are done the way they are, and what that means to the people who do so. Tradition is the sphere of vital knowledge, held across many heads, sharpened and deepened by practice, shared in the right spaces with those who are ready to learn.

In museums, old working boats come to a rest, emptied of their final cargo, encumbered by rules that prevent people from using them, from living upon them, from understanding the complex relationships between object and human, and they become mute, their knowledge and Potential traded for an distant aesthetic mystery. Roses and Castles pointed out, brasses gleaming, but the operation, practicality, and even humanity of them lost to history.

Jason’s Trip is a rare example of the preservation of something more than a mere artefact. It has something intangible that cannot be laid out in any rule book or interpretation board. It has a loose community of skippers and crew who are drawn to work there because in doing so they get to belong to a continuity that extends back centuries. To draw from a pool of knowledge, perhaps deepen it a little further where the modern world demands a fresh input, and pass that all on again. Such an environment cannot be formalized, but instead exists as an ephemeral cloud around the boat, carefully nurtured and cherished by the owners and the staff who work it. It requires constant care to maintain it and could be lost in the blink of an eye with the wrong management. It relies on everyone to believe in its value and to want to sustain it. It is the opposite of the museum experience and vastly more valuable than mere preservation of an artefact can ever be. It is a living boat.

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