The Kennet and Avon canal meanders from the River Thames just above Caversham lock in Reading, past the old Huntley and Palmers biscuit factory, through Highbridge wharf under London Street bridge, behind the old Simmond’s brewery and on into the Berkshire countryside. From there on there is lock after lock, until you get to old Burghfield bridge close to the Swan public house and then on towards Old Aldermaston.
On the Reading side of the bridge there are many little dilapidated cruisers moored around a virtual island amongst which are a variety of colorful narrow boats. Ranging from twenty to seventy feet in length, the larger ones are occasionally used as homes or they make a good weekend retreat.
Painted in bright red blues and greens and other decorations of roses and castles, they are peculiarly English. Their history goes back to the 1830’s and the Industrial Revolution. Then the digging of the canals across England was by the navigators, or navvy’s as they were better known.
On the Kennet and Avon canal in those days, a ‘barge and butty’ could travel from Reading or London all the way to Bristol and the Severn estuary. They carried anything from bricks, beer, seeds, processed tobacco or biscuits, to heavy machinery and even livestock. On the way back they might carry Bristol glass or ceramics and wool or cotton from the colonies.
In the early days they were pulled by horses, or pulled and pushed by men. Sometimes they would even walk the narrow boats through tunnels by lying on the top of the boat and relentlessly pushing them through the darkness, scuffing with their hob nailed boots on the roof of the tunnel.
Working in all weathers and through long arduous days and weeks, the boats were often operated by whole families who needed to be tough to survive. Strong arms and legs were required to clamber on and off the many locks; to wind the paddles up and down with their windlasses and strong backs were required to push open the lock gates.
Nowadays these boats have powerful diesel engines and are deceptively easy to maneuver due to their heavy weight and their shallow draft. But you still need to be agile and strong to manage the manually operated locks, with someone else to keep a firm hand on the tiller.
It was a midsummer’s day in 2001 and although the morning had been hot, the afternoon was deliciously cool especially in the shade of a willow tree, or amongst the rushes and reeds that inhabit the bank. The water hardly moved. And apart from the splash of a Mallard duck, or the tweet of a red beaked Moorhen, the only other sound was the cough of a distant angler hidden somewhere amongst the reeds. Sometimes it was the plop of a pike or perch, as they jumped in the old millpond which now formed a part of the weir that ran into the canal that flowed from Old Aldermaston lock.
If you sat very still you could hear the crunch of a cow chewing the tall hedgerow grass in a nearby field, the chirp of a Pewit or Curlew, and maybe the distant sound of a haymaking tractor. Within this noisy silence, if you concentrated very intently you might also hear the sound of the number nine Thames Valley bus honking its horn, crossing the narrow Burghfield Bridge; stopping by the Swan public house, then on to the Mearings and the hamlet of Burghfield. But it was also the sound of nothing, and that is why people liked it so much.
In the shadow of a weeping willow tree, Fienna was moored next to a dilapidated metal shed which also served as the garage for an old Morris 1000 Traveler. Fienna was a seventy-two foot metal-hulled boat with a wooden superstructure housing a big open planned cabin at the front, an integral kitchen - with a smaller cabin next to it - and a separate bathroom. The rear cabin was partly made of metal, and contained the big Perkins diesel engine which propelled the boat through the canals.
Fienna was mainly painted in red, but the rear cabin housing the mechanical parts had an oblong green decorated sign on its side. It said Fienna – Bristol. But if you looked closely under the bright paint you could just read the name of the original owners in relief, of this once working boat. It said ‘Willow-Wren Braunston’.
The boat was spotless. All the windows and portholes had recently been cleaned and polished, and on the roof; apart from the decorated chimney for the wood burning stove, there was also a hand painted watering can which stood next to a plastic trough of trailing flowers. Further up on the roof by the brass running rail was a painted water bucket and a mop. The owner had obviously been busy.
Running from the side of the boat was an electrical cable and a telephone line. Inside one could hear the sound of music and see the glow from the screen of a computer. The music came from two speakers next to the screen and was the unmistakable sound of Art Tatum. All the beds had been made and the carpets vacuumed. The kitchen gleamed and the pots and pans shone from the streaks of sunlight that passed through the window opposite. The phone was ringing.
A man sat in a Lloyd Loom cane chair at the front of the boat, seemingly deaf to the sound of the beckoning telephone whilst serenely content to gaze ahead at the peaceful setting. Perhaps at the shafts of sunlight that shone through the willow tree, which played on the water between the little ripples of a feeding fish and the traveling water boatman. Or was he looking at the old oak tree in the small field opposite and the horse that stood beneath? It was swishing the flies away with its tale, its skin quivering from the irritating mosquitoes which had landed on its neck hoping for a late summers day feed.
A man in his fifties, he looked quite hefty. His narrow features were almost Levantine, his eyes set wide apart and brown, his graying hair closely cropped and curly and his nose thin and sharp. He was grasping the Sunday Telegraph in his strong hands although it was Monday.
Dressed in a white and red striped shirt, he was wearing slightly dated narrow cavalry twill trousers and there was a double-breasted blazer draped over the back of the cane chair in which he sat. His brown, half brogue shoes were highly polished and he wore some obscure military or club tie. He was still sitting in the same position at 10.30 am, the following day, just as Art Tatum started to play Begin the Beguine for the umpteenth time. A passing jazz loving all night fisherman stopped to ask him if he owned any other Art Tatum records, but he received no reply.
Rushing down the towpath, Henry Stillman ran into the Swan public house and called the Police. Within ten minutes two uniformed Policemen arrived on the scene, closely followed by a Paramedic Ambulance. When they arrived at the boat they could clearly see that the man was staring into oblivion. Sergeant Robert Park had never seen anything like it before and Constable Adams was confused and somewhat ashen faced. He had only been on the force for three months and this was his first dead body.
‘He’s brown bread Sergeant, I’m afraid, he snuffed it.’ Paramedic Stuart Knowles had seen a lot of dead people in his time as a soldier in Iraq and later in Bosnia. ‘I think he’s been murdered, he’s got a wound in his head! Who is he; does anybody know who he is?’
Henry Stillman was shocked and understandably agitated. ‘Calm down Mr. Stillman, there is nothing you can do for him now,’ Sergeant Park knew his way around in this peculiarly provincial setting, although he was aware that nothing like this had happened in Burghfield for many years, well not since the Second World War anyway.
‘Take it slowly, take your time and tell me what you know.’
Stillman told him all he knew in his broad Reading accent. ‘Well, it was like I said anat; no-one seems to know much about him…… Alf the landlord at the Swan said he didn’t go to the pub much and kept hisself to hisself……. Like I said anat, he’s been staying here on his own for about a mumph, and no one knows who he is.’
The Sargent seemed perplexed. ‘Doesn’t anyone know his name?’ Stillman’s large shiny face seemed to show every process of thought, by the way he frequently changed his facial expressions. ‘Like I say, you will have to ask Alf at the pub anat, but he said that he was called Liam. Like I say, that’s all I know.’
Sergeant Park had been on the force for nearly twenty years, so he well knew that this was a job for the murder squad and he personally didn’t really want any part of it.
‘Adams, I want you to call up for some reinforcements and when they arrive I want you to cordon off the area and to close the towpath in both directions for about a mile. We don’t want the local papers to know anything more than they have to. If someone asks you, just say that there has been an accident. And Adams, try not to fall in the river!’ The Sargent was getting near to retirement and rather disappointed with young police recruits.
‘And you Mr. Stillman, I want you to wait here and then come with me to the police station, when the others arrive, to write your statement.’ It was time for a spot of lunch anyway and they had shepherds pie on the menu in the canteen that day. So he told the Paramedics to piss off and waited for the others to arrive.
© Copyright 2016 Patrick Brigham. All rights reserved.