Falling in love with waterways

Novelist Helen Matthews explains how her love affair with canals has moved from flirtation to commitment, and why the character in her latest book chose to live on a narrowboat.

Little Venice, courtesy of Helen Matthews Little Venice, courtesy of Helen Matthews

The magic of the awe-inspiring Pontcysyllte Aqueduct quite took my breath away.

Helen Matthews

For much of my life, I’ve been flirting with canals without making a firm commitment.

Our relationship (waterways and me) began with a week on the Llangollen Canal, soon after graduating, with a motley crew from my friend’s London house share. The magic of the awe-inspiring Pontcysyllte Aqueduct quite took my breath away.

A friend of my sister’s owned a narrowboat, and needed someone to love it when he couldn’t be there. He offered us not one ring, but two. It wasn’t a proposal, as such, but allowed us to explore the Warwickshire Ring and the Leicester Ring, with its huge physical challenge of Foxton Locks.

Smitten with canal life

My sister, and her then husband, were smitten. They decided to change their lives and commit to the canal forever. They saw an advert for the ‘Owl’, a narrowboat fitted out with an engine and accommodation, and a butty called ‘Mercury’ (a camping barge). These were already run as an educational business, taking school trips for six months of the year. They sold their Wimbledon flat and arranged for a boat surveyor to carry out an inspection in a dry dock, three days away, at the Erewash Canal. It was January. Ice was building on the canal and they became marooned. Finally, a plan. They unhitched ‘Mercury’ and raced ‘Owl’ forward, full throttle, landing on top of the ice and breaking what was underneath.

When they reached the dry dock, heartbreak was in store. The surveyor pronounced both boats were rotting from the inside. Lacking funds to pay for expensive repairs, they had to turn away and get a quickie divorce from poor old ‘Owl’ and ‘Mercury’.

No experience is ever wasted

Lately, I’ve been sticking to towpaths and cycled ninety miles of the Kennet & Avon Canal from Bath to Berkshire, with three friends. My favourite local walk is along the Basingstoke Canal where the collapsed Greywell Tunnel is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and has the largest roosting bat colonies (over 12,500) in Britain, including Natterer’s bat and the brown long-eared bat.

For an author, no experience is ever wasted. But imagine my surprise when Imogen, a character in my latest novel, Façade,  told me she was going to live on a houseboat. That’s how it works in fiction – your characters tell you and you have to obey. I took my camera and set off to Little Venice in London to research and explore. The fantastic team at the Canal & River Trust’s offices briefed me on practicalities: the value of  a central London mooring; how summers are spent fixing up boats to get through winter; the technical challenges and why it’s good to join a gym (if your plumbing fails, you can get a hot shower).

'Facade', by Helen Matthews

Close community

All the canal dwellers I chatted to, enthused about the life: craftspeople, musicians, journalists,  judges and people with regular jobs, living in a close community. I felt the pull of that community and put it my book, inventing a houseboat called ‘The Lazy Lucy’, where Imogen lives when she returns, bitter and resentful, from a nomadic life. On the canal she finds community and home, but is too fickle to recognise it.

Façade is a psychological suspense novel and will be published on 17 September by Darkstroke, an imprint of Crooked Cat. The eBook is available for pre-order now at mybook.to/facade.

Last date edited: 14 August 2020