Photo: Richard Penn
We’d spent the morning cruising from Paddington towards the Thames, ever conscious of an approaching early summer storm and trying to coax a little extra speed out of Shiralee’s engine, which was already pumping faster than a dying mouse’s heartbeat. Most boaters would admit there is little romantic pleasure to be drawn from steering in the rain, so we raced the clouds to Limehouse Basin and, victorious, moored up against the eastern wall. The sky overhead remained blue, but there was something in the air, that pregnant sense of impending deluge. As we sat on the wall, legs dangling over the basin, chatting idly about the next day’s venture on the Thames, we eyed the greyness to the west. When it finally arrived, we saw the rain approach before we felt it. The surface of the canal at the far end of the basin began to spot and prick with a thousand raindrops. An invisible wall of rain rapidly advanced towards us across the marina, leaving a tell-tale trail in the water behind it like footprints in the snow. As the torrential downpour finally enveloped us, we did the only sensible thing and headed laughing to the nearest pub to dry, and wait it out.
Canal life is intimately connected to the elements. A sunny or snowy day can transform the environment both indoors and out in the most dramatic and subtle ways, but some of the most memorable encounters come with rain. Even being caught travelling in the rain allows for a certain charming stoicism once you’ve accepted the situation, as you stand exposed on the stern, hand turning blue on the tiller, rain drops hanging off your nose like Batman from a Gotham gargoyle. ‘The idea of being outside and triumphing over the elements is quite powerful, as there aren’t many experiences where you can feel tested,’ says Melissa Harrison, author of Rain: Four Walks In English Weather (Faber & Faber). ‘But that’s what a rain storm can feel and it writes itself into your memory as something you have survived, transcended and triumphed over. There can be moments of complete euphoria once you realise you’ll survive and you aren’t made of paper.’
While a summer rainstorm can bring welcome showers to puncture the tension and cool down the torrid interior, in winter the first drops of rain are announced by a warning hiss of steam as water hits the chimney, sending you scurrying inside for shelter. There is something magical about sitting aboard a boat watching boozy raindrops shell the surface of the canal, or being woken from a deep sleep by the clatter of water on metal roof a few feet above your nose. It’s a little like listening to a rainfall when camping, only where canvas mutes the impact, metal magnifies the sound, reinforcing your proximity to the outdoors, the thinness of your security. ‘It’s a feeling of safety, but only just, as if there’s something potentially discomforting very close to you,’ says Harrison.
When it rained, I would often think of a Pulp song, ‘Inside Susan’, a teenage stream-of-consciousness intoned theatrically by Jarvis Cocker. ‘Suddenly it begins to rain torrentially and it sounds like someone has emptied about a million packets of dried peas on top of the roof of the bus,’ chants Cocker. ‘“What if it just keeps raining,” she thinks to herself, “and it was just like being in an aquarium except it was all the shoppers and office-workers that were floating passed the window instead of fish?”’
On a boat, it was also possible to conjure up this image of being entirely enveloped by rain. When it rains, hard, it is like being completely enclosed by water, above and below and all around. The rain batters the roof, the windows are streaked and blurred by water, so that rather than floating on the surface of the canal you feel as if you are submerged beneath it in a submarine. Or perhaps it’s as if the canal has risen up like liquid ivy and taken over everything within reach, defying gravity and common sense. Vision obscured by the sheets of water outside, you retreat inside your head. ‘There’s that weird quality to rain, the vista is closed, your head is down and you retreat into yourself,’ says Harrison. ‘You can feel it, hear, smell it but you are also quite isolated. It can put you in touch with some early memories, bringing melancholy in a pleasurable way.’
Being inside a boat when it rained would always remind me of being in my parents’ car during long drives in the grey wet British weather, surrounded by metal and watching raindrops cling to glass on small, rectangular windows. There were those fat blobs of rain that sit there wobbling, as if they’ve been glued to the glass, or the thin streaks of dots that smear the pane like Morse code, a dozen scattered ellipses. These drops might reflect the light turning the entire window into a child’s psychedelic kaleidoscope, or they may detach themselves from the cluster and race each other to the sill, leaving behind a silky trail like a comet through the stars. And overhead, the rain drums the roof, like impatient fingertips waiting for the sun.