Sunday, September 2, 2007

A Walk Along the Canal.

Sometimes the greatest pleasures we experience in this world are the simplest, and some of the greatest adventures we have are the least eventful. I gained an understanding of this contradictory truth during my semester at Harlaxton College near Grantham, England.

The Gregory Arms was a popular hangout for the college students, and many of us could be found sitting at the bar on weekend nights, chatting with the locals and sharing pints. My regular conversation partner was an old Canadian ex-patriat with an interest in history and a degree in mathematics. We talked about anything from the origins of the Etruscans to the Japanese economy. One night, however, he told me about something different.

"If you want a nice walk," he said, "follow the Grantham Canal to Woolsthorpe, and have lunch at the 'Mucky Duck.' It's not far, and makes a nice stroll for a Sunday morning."

The next morning dawned and I rose early, determined to take his advice. I donned my trusty work boots which had served me well from Poggio Civitate to London. Slipping into my denim jacket to ward off the morning chill, I made my way into Harlaxton to find the canal. One had to walk past some of the more ramshackle dwellings to a small bridge, then turn sharply and descend, passing beneath the span to put your feet on the old tow path. After successfully navigating this course, I found myself experiencing one of those quintessentially simple pleasures that it's almost impossible to experience with someone else.

The canal was narrow, and here and there a boat was pulled up to the bank, paint faded and tarp-covered. The waterway wound through the countryside, autumn fields rising up on either side of me as I casually walked along, enjoying the sight of the occasional lock with it's black gates and immense wooden levers. The weather was perfect, with just enough sun to drive away the gloominess of autumn, and enough clouds to keep you from squinting. Groves of trees and water plants broke up the landscape, giving you the sense that you were actually going somewhere as you moseyed along.

Just as the sun was drawing to its peak and I was starting to feel warm, I reached my destination. The Dirty Duck (its real name) was that wonderful mixture of quaint traditional and cool modern that typifies English pubs. It seemed fitting, like my solitary walk, that I was the only patron there at this particular lunch hour. I had a sandwich, of what I don't remember, and a pint, probably John Smith's Bitter, my staple while I was at Harlaxton. Both were good, and after a relaxing break and a casual glance around the pub, I stepped back outside to the canal.

I paused for a moment as the warm October sun shone down on me and I looked down the path, first one way, then the other. I felt full of energy, as if I could cover the entire 27 miles to Nottingham in the remainder of that day. The Midland country air tends to have that effect on you, and will tempt you if you let it. But I had funds for lunch, not a hotel, and the magic would surely wear off with the setting of the sun; and I had classes the next day.

I resisted temptation that time, and turned back to the now-familiar way that led back to school. The sun was warmer, so I doffed my jacket and bounced along, not caring that I had forgotten my camera to chronicle my excursion. Such a device would have stolen the soul from the day, and I did not miss it. I had plenty of drawing paper in my room, and could capture my memories well enough in that fitting medium.

I walked along into the afternoon, nodding to the old scows as I passed, my only companions on that special journey. I climbed the bank to the bridge and made my way through the still quiet village, though the gates and in the door of the manor, back to the world of dart games and British Studies.