Paul Vallely: Where Gandalf II floats by

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The Independent Online

I have become a canal man. Doctors' orders have imposed upon me the necessity of an hour's walk every day to get the cardio-vascular system in better fettle. After a couple of months of exploring in novel detail the pavements, parks and commons around my home, I have settled upon the canal.

I have become a canal man. Doctors' orders have imposed upon me the necessity of an hour's walk every day to get the cardio-vascular system in better fettle. After a couple of months of exploring in novel detail the pavements, parks and commons around my home, I have settled upon the canal.

It is a world apart, but not perhaps in the way you might imagine. I must confess that, until I moved north last year, I had had little contact with canals. Two decades in and around Twickenham had meant I knew about the river. But the canal is something completely different.

I had once sat by the banks of one as a boy, with an uncle who went in for a spot of coarse fishing. It struck me then as a dead place, with the water unmoving and the air hanging still, under a dank canopy of trees. The perch were hooked far too infrequently to relieve the tedium.

But, in those days, the canal retained some dark mystery, largely thanks to the children's adventure stories I voraciously devoured, in which canals were places of disreputable excitement, populated by bargees who travelled through the world of dull, daily decency with the same explosion of colourful subversion that gypsies did. At least they did by the subliminally snobbish assumptions of the children's literature of the time.

Here in Sale, in the interstice between inner city Manchester and the affluent vulgarity of suburban Cheshire, the canal is an altogether more respectable place. It is part of the Bridgewater canal, one of the very first built in England in the 1760s at the behest of Francis Egerton, third Duke of Bridgewater, to cope with the increasing demand for coal from the growing city. But the last commercial barge left this masterpiece of 18th-century engineering in the mid-Seventies, and the canal is now kept maintained principally for pleasure craft.

Indeed, the place is now a bastion of middle-class leisure. The moorings of the grandiloquently named Sale Cruising Club, bounded safely by the ominous razor wire of the railway line on one side and by the padlocked doors in the bridge at either end, is a safe place. Window boxes of marigolds, alyssum and trailing lobelia sit unmolested on the roofs of the narrowboats. The neat little plots of conifers, borders and garden seats along the moorings seem to be untroubled by vandals.

On a Sunday morning, the boats are peopled by a little community sharing idle gossip over lazy breakfasts. "You are being watched," the Cheshire Constabulary and Greater Manchester police Canal Watch signs inform the passing outsider.

Further on, middle-aged men exercise in the racing skiffs of the Trafford Rowing Club or indulge their childhood fantasies on the miniature railway in Walton Park. Holidaymakers on hire boats steer uncertainly along the water. As the canal passes the local bowling green, retired men in windcheaters and trilbies play bowls. One regular, in his early sixties, and thereby the representative of youth, wears a blouson jacket and baseball cap. In this context, he looks positively raffish.

There is something about canal life which is not of the real world, or at least not the one we read about in the local paper with its outraged litany of violence and crime. For a start, the canal is altogether a more winsome place. Boats are named in spirit of gothic romance – Merlin, Tintagel, Runic, Gandalf II. (One wonders about the gnomic fate of Gandalf I). Others are more comfily traditional – the Nellie Rose, Alice, Phoebe May, Hannah – painted in traditional narrowboat colours of primary reds, blues and greens. They have matching boathooks, brass portholes of etched Victorian glass and hand-painted wreaths and swirls of hand-drawn roses and daisies. It is a picture of a bygone era whose sepia has been coloured in with modern acrylic tints.

Further on, the canal side gets wilder. Or appears to. Bindweed and brambles choke the hedges of hawthorn and wild-seeded sycamore. Tansy, broad-leaved grasses and nettles encroach upon the towpath. In places, the great stone kerbs of the canalside have broken down and reeds grow up in the boggy areas behind the banks. The red beak of a moorhen can be seen as it jerkily moves its long legs along a submerged branch. Tortoiseshell butterflies can occasionally be seen.

Here, the canal pretends to be the countryside. But it is a piece of trickery. For there are regular gates in the hedgerow, little private back entrances into people's gardens. On the other side is the ordered world of clematis and clipped hedges. There, the privet isn't allowed to blossom and the flagstones are well weeded. Where the canal passes one of several cemeteries, the leaves of park trees intrude onto the path – laurels, fancy conifers and copper beeches whose remorseless roots press like fingers into the graves.

The canal is a place of paradox. Fishermen, drawn by the simplicity of sitting by the quiet water, arrive with huge amounts of sophisticated brand-name gear, rods which stretch two thirds of the width of the canal, and SAS-style bivouacs.

Some sit for hours in the fresh air, yet chain-smoke throughout. By the waterside pubs, to which drinkers are presumably drawn by the picturesque outlook, the waters bob with Hooch bottles and debris which pretty much stays where it was chucked.

The canal is a poor man's river. It has no downstream or upstream, it does not flow, and the same detritus – a traffic cone, a Tesco trolley – is to be seen in the same places each day, like underwater milestones for my daily walk.

Yet still, for all such intrusions, the canal remains detached from the quotidian world. Except for the postman taking a short cut with his mail sack, people are not conducting the main business of life. They are ambling, jogging, cycling, walking the dog or messing about in narrowboats. It is a byway from the real life, which can be espied from time to time across the bridges over the canal. It passes at right angles, in an entirely different direction and plane, to the progress of the water people below.

And if the water does not move, the wind, at least, moves the surface of the muddy green water, rippling it with an attractive silver sheen. It is the illusion of movement. And, most of the time, the illusion is charm enough.