Along the canal

THE PADDINGTON ARM of the Grand Union Canal connects Paddington Basin to Bull’s Bridge at Hayes. It was opened in 1801 and was an important transport route before the growth of railway usage in England. Today, it is used mainly for leisure. People enjoy walking, running, and cycling along its well-maintained towpaths. Others keep long canal boats, known as ‘narrow boats, on the water. Some live in these vessels, others use them to move slowly through Britain’s antique but still usable canal network.

 

BLOG CANAL

 

During my teens, I used to explore London with three good friends and an excellent guidebook to London’s quirkier sights, “Nairn’s London” written by Ian Nairn. We walked along the banks of the River Thames, which were undeveloped and somewhat sinister in the late 1960s. In those days, there were stretches of riverside that had barely altered since the era of Charles Dickens.  Nowadays, there are few if any stretches of the Thames in London, which have not been made ‘visitor friendly’.

One day, the four of us decided to walk along the Grand Union Canal, starting our exploration at Camden Lock, now a crowded, popular tourist area. We followed the Regents Canal to the point where it enters the Maida Vale Tunnel, and then re-joined it where it emerged. From Little Venice, we continued westward along the Paddington Arm. For most of the way, we saw nobody else on the towpath. As we headed further west, the canal began running through a dreary semi-industrial neighbourhood. Just before we reached the road bridge that carries Ladbroke Grove over the canal, we saw a gang of young men in leather jackets, who looked at us menacingly. They were busy throwing a motorcycle into the canal. We did not like the look of them and decided that we had seen enough of the canal.

Years later, we joined other friends on a boat trip that began at Camden Lock and continued along the canal to Greenford, a suburb in the far west of London. The trip was very picturesque as far as Ladbroke Grove, but the remaining long stretch was less exciting. West of Ladbroke Grove, the canal winds past industrial buildings and the gardens at the back of residential houses. Later, we accompanied the same friends on a boat trip that took us east from Camden Lock. This was a far more interesting ride as its route includes many fascinating built-up urban areas of east London, which have a richer history than the suburbs of west London. It included a visit to the Olympic Games park that was being constructed at the time.

Today, my wife and I re-visited the Paddington Arm, walking the short stretch between the Harrow Road bridge and the point where, long ago, my friends and I saw the young men throwing a motorbike into the water. We did not see anything like that but had to contend with the almost continuous stream of cyclists sharing the towpath. Most of them were courteous, but a few inconsiderate wildly pedalling folk seemed to think that they were taking part in the Tour de France. Given that it was a Sunday afternoon, it was not too busy to make walking along the towpath anything but enjoyable.

Bulgarian mineral water

bottle

In 1967, there was a serious strike of dock workers in the United Kingdom. There were anxieties about shortages of stocks of various household goods. And one of the most worried people was my late mother. Maybe, having lived through the lean days of early post-WW2 Britain, she did not want her family to be caught short of any essential supplies.

Very soon, she filled one of our smaller bedrooms with enough toilet rolls to keep an army happy. We did not have to buy toilet paper for many years after the strike was over.

Some years after she died, my father and I looked into a large cupboard which was used mainly to store unwanted furniture and other junk. We hardly ever opened this storage area because we knew there was little inside it that we might ever want to see again. However, when we opened the cupboard sometime in the 1980s, my father and I found that its floor was packed solid with a layer of tins of canned meat: ham and so on. Sadly, this went to waste.

My mother worried that in addition to shortages of groceries, the strike might lead to a failure of the public water supply. To prepare for this possible tragedy, my mother bought bottled water. Today, water packaged in plastic bottles is extremely common,and many will not leave home without a bottle of water. However, in the late 1960s in the UK, bottled water was a bit of a rarity. In those days, it was de rigeur to drink only bottled water in France, but in the UK you just turned on the tap.

Given the scarcity of bottled water in the UK of 1967, it is amazing that my mother was able to find quite a few gallons of the stuff. What amazes me to this day is that all of the bottles bore labels indicating that they contained spring water bottled in Bulgaria.

Bombay long ago

IN THE TWELFTH CENTURY AD, long before the islands on which Bombay now stands were occupied by the Mughals, then the Portuguese, and then the British, Lakshman Prabhu, a minister in the court of the Sihara Dynasty (8th to 13th centuries AD), built a tank (reservoir) on what is now the elegant residential area known as Malabar Hill. This water body, the Banganga Tank, was rebuilt in 1715 and had been cleaned up recently. Neither my wife nor I had heard of it until a correspondent, Donna Young, suggested we visit it.

The approach road that leads off one of the main roads in Malabar Hill enters an area where on one side of the thoroughfare there are expensive apartment blocks. They face a line of badly built modest homes (slightly better than slum dwellings and some with TV satellite dish aerials) all of which must have great views of the Arabian Sea.

The tank is rectangular in plan and surrounded by steps with wide landings leading down to the water, which enters the pool at one corner at a fast rate of flow. Ducks and geese rest on the steps or swim in the water in the tank.

The tank is surrounded by low buildings, many of which are Hindu temples. Occasional gaps between the buildings have staircases that lead down to the steps surrounding the tank. Some of these gaps are flanked by towers containing many niches for placing diyas (oil lamps). Some of these have become perching places popular with pigeons.

The road running around the tank is the only thoroughfare for the community, mainly Hindus, who live around the tank. This community, though by no means impoverished, is far less prosperous than that which occupies most of Malabar Hill.

Banganga Tank is very picturesque and a complete contrast to its surrounding elegant mansions and apartment blocks built mainly from the 1920s onwards. It is a well preserved early mediaeval environment in the heart of busy, modern Bombay. It should be on tourists’ itineraries, and judging by a group of middle-aged Italian camera toting tourists I saw, I believe it is already.

While I was wandering around exploring, my wife sat on a wall near some parked motorcycles. There were some young men joking amongst each other nearby. One said to another: “You are fourth class fail.” He replied: ”You are second class fail.” At this point, my wife asked if one of the bikes could be moved slightly to give her legs more room. As a third boy shifted the bike, one of the others laughed and said: “Oho, that one is KG fail” (KG is short for kindergarten).

A SALTY DESERT

THE WHITE RANN (desert) is so named because of the layer of white salt crystals that forms on its surface in dry weather. The salt forms when salty water covering the salt flats in Kutch evaporates. We arrived in the area of the White Rann a few days after a downfall of rain. Rain dissolves the salt and the whiteness of the Rann disappears.

One afternoon, I walked across the salt flats behind our hotel. The water on the distant lake shimmered in the bright sunshine. The flat Rann across which I was strolling was greyish yellow with occasional patches of white. The surface of the drying salt was crunchy underfoot and sparkled as the crystals reflected the sun light.

There was no one in sight, no birds or other creatures. There was no sound apart from a gentle warm breeze that was drying the salt covered surface of the completely flat Rann.

By now you might be wondering where all of this salt comes from. A long, long time ago, an inlet of the Arabian Sea separated what is now Kutch from what is now Sindh (in Pakistan). After some seismic activity, the sea bed of the inlet was transformed into a barren desert, the Rann of Kutch. During rainy season, water collects in lakes in the Rann. Salt from the former sea bed dissolves in the water. When this water evaporates in the dry seasons, the salt is precipitated on the shore when the waters recede.

In a couple of days time, the Rann will be snow white again providing there is no more rain.

Pink flamingos

WHEN I WAS A SMALL CHILD, I used to be taken to see the small menagerie at Golders Hill Park in Northwest London. In addition to wallabies and deer, there used to be, and it is probably still in existence, an enclosure containing a few flamingos. Until a recent visit to Mandvi in Kutch (Gujarat, India), these were the only flamingos I can recall seeing.

Every year, flamingos migrate to Kutch during the winter months to escape from the cold that affects their summer habitats during winter. They might fly in from central Asia, or from parts of India that get particularly cold in winter.

We were keen to see these flamingos in Kutch. A keen bird watcher, who lives in Baroda, told us that flamingos had been sighted at Modhva beach, a few miles east of Kutch Mandvi.

We drove to Modhva beach, arriving there about twenty minutes before sunset. At first, the only birds we could see were seagulls. There were no flamingos to be seen. We asked some local fishermen about them. They pointed at the sea.

Our driver, who must have keen eyesight, pointed at some specks on the surface of sea, maybe more than one hundred yards from the water’s edge. Using the twenty times optical zoom on my digital camera, I could see quite clearly that the specks were flamingos with pink and white plumage.

I managed to take a few photographs before the sun sunk rapidly below the horizon. I had seen flamingos in the wild for the first time in my life. It was an exciting experience.