In the budding summer months my love and I cast off from his home in London and take Camelot one hundred and eighty miles north on England's canals.
Jonny has a long way to go before we reach his new city, but home is with us on the water. I join him for the first week of his travels. Boat life has suited me well during my intermittent weekend sojourns, but living on Cam with a schedule to keep is a new kind of river life. We make slow progress out of London on the first day, and moor early to catch a sunset I don't photograph. Before long, though, we are past the last recognisable bend in the river and into uncharted waters.
Jonny has taught me how to take Cam through a lock, but the little thing next to his local pub in Uxbridge is far less intimidating than the ones we begin to encounter further along the Grand Union Canal. Locks work like water-lifts for boats travelling up-river along uneven ground; where the natural flow of the canal is too shallow for boats to pass over, the lock maintains a constant depth along otherwise impassable stretches. The lock is emptied and the boat is driven in, and when the gates are closed the lock is filled with water from the higher stretch of canal to raise the boat up to the next level.
Sometimes there are lock keepers who do the hard work for us, but more often than not Jonny clambers up with his metal lock key and takes us through himself. Downstairs the experience is akin to a small earthquake. A narrowboat's interior design always features fantastic storage solutions, partly for the lack of space boat life affords and partly with this particular scenario in mind. Even so, the crockery clatters in the cupboards and anything not well-secured is likely to end up on the floor as the water rushes into the basin outside. I quickly learn that showers should be taken before casting off in the morning, as shaving one's legs during one of these events is likely to end in bloody mess.
One day I wake to find Cam rattling around inside a particularly deep lock, and when I investigate upstairs Jonny is nowhere to be seen. For a horrifying moment I'm convinced he's fallen in - but he's just left the boat to drift while he wanders ahead. It rattles me, though, and afterwards I try to make sure I'm on hand when we're passing through.
We settle into a routine. Early mornings are spent in lazy bliss before Jonny makes breakfast and casts us off. So far I lack both the proper experience for being useful on deck and the politics for being a useful boat-wife downstairs, but do my best to tidy up the cabin and wash up our breakfast things until I learn the ropes. The days are warm enough to open her foredeck doors and let the breeze blow through while I read or edit photographs or make cups of tea on the stove kettle.
We journey through parts of the country I have never visited, and see it all only from the roof of our floating home. Sweet June winds make fields of yellow rapeseed roll like waves as we pass by the fields, and every so often the cows and sheep and horses that graze near the river lift their heads to watch us as we sail on.
Each evening we begin to look for a spot to spend the night along the riverbank. Sometimes there is space on the tow path, with proper posts to tie Camelot to while we sleep, and sometimes we find our own berth on patches of muddy bank. Jonny stamps down the weeds and thistles and hammers a metal stake into the dirt to keep us from drifting, but the river is shallower here and holds the hazard of running us aground. I like the romanticism of our nomadic life on the water, and the vague sense of threat in moment such as these is part of the thrill.
Careful to balance my idyllic tendencies, Jonny keeps a firmly practical head. On the water, Camelot is far more likely to break down and leave us stranded, and he has a job offer in Worcester which won't wait. Each morning requires some tinkering to keep her in ship-shape condition - the engine under the aft deck floorboards or the water tank or the oil levels. (I have learnt for myself some of Cam's odd eccentricities; to keep her shower hot and pressurised requires more than a little coaxing.) One afternoon, aware of gurgling in her bowels, he sets to work emptying the bilges of the water they've collected. I help by taking multiple photographs.
But Cam keeps afloat, and we continue through picturesque Hertfordshire. It is holiday season, and there are plenty of boats on the canal. I think about history in the present. When my mother was young she'd spend her summers on the river too. Granddad used to borrow a narrowboat from an acquaintance, and he and my grandma, my aunt, and my mum would boat the stretch near Stratford-upon-Avon. Next year, when Jonny moves back to London, I'd like to journey home that way. We'll stop in the town and see a Shakespeare play by the RSC, and have dinner on the riverside. Next summer is a lifetime away.
(Jonny drives with his feet while we map-read.)
Tube trains rumble across the bridge early in the morning, close to where we have moored for the night. We are still on the edge of the city. Later we stop to navigate an old lock in the midday sun, but the last occupants left the gates open when they left. A family of curious ducks paddle inside, and no amount of coaxing helps them leave. We attract a crowd on the footbridge close by as we guide heavy Camelot in alongside. As the lock fills up again, the big ducks escape with a clutch of their brood but leave two little ducklings behind.
Cam is a gentle giant. The swell from her engines keeps the ducklings out of harm's way while they cheep pitifully. The water rises as slowly as we can keep it. When the gates open again their mother hurries in to usher them away. The crowd waves as we set off again.
Later in the afternoon we moor early to pick up groceries from a riverside Tesco, and instead of chugging on we leave Cam to explore the local beauty spot. Through the village and up a steep hill we found Forestry Commission-owned woodland, and come across a fallen sycamore on the road. There are very few people around, the foxgloves are in perfect bloom, and the trees are lush and heavy as they sway above us.
On the way home we trespass over the golf course and pluck elderflower from the trees along the canal. Back on the river we make elderflower cordial in the twilight before dinner. Jonny leaves the flowers to soak overnight, and we watch the new documentary on Don McCullin which leaves me with thoughts over thoughts, and a headache. Camelot rocks in the warm night. The next day it is almost time for me to leave; woken by birdsong, we cast off early.
The rain arrives. The river ripples and dimples, and we are glad for Cam's hood until we reach the next stretch of locks. We have made good time, though, so we stop after lunch and wait for the wet weather to pass. A punnet of raspberries makes perfect cupcake icing. My new dress is covered in flour.
When the clouds clear we venture out one last time. I shoot one what will become one of my favourite expansions on the side of the canal, and then we walk back the way we have boated towards a lake we passed not so long ago. We try and find it by cutting through a park, through a housing estate, and then through woodland, but eventually Jonny climbs a hill and realises the lake is behind a big fence.
We consider sneaking in, and perhaps we would have if it hadn't been almost dinner time. Home again along the tow path, muttering John Clare. In little parcels little minds to please.
I don't want to go. We chug the last few miles to the station where I will board a train tomorrow, Euston-bound, headed for Canterbury. We pass under the M25: London's citadel. We have left at last.
The morning is bright and cool, and I am collecting my bags on deck when a family of swans arrive. The mother has nine signets - too many to fit in my frame. We feed them the last of our stale bread, and close Camelot's flaps in case they try to stow away onboard when we leave for the station. Instead they follow us down the tow path a little way, all in a line, and when we come across another boat moored on the bank they hustle around it in hope of a second meal.
Jonny will head north-west from here, following our map's blue line up, up, towards Birmingham over a hundred miles away. I have to return to another home to finish what I have made there. All being well, we'll meet again in Norfolk a fortnight from now - briefly, before he starts his new job. These days to come seem chaotic in comparison to the lethargic pace of our time on the water. The summer currents sweep on.