Winter on the Waterways

Working the Waterways: NarrowBoat, Winter 2022

John Saxon

Ex-working boater John Saxon passed away in 2022. We revisit his evocative account of operating cargo-carrying narrowboats during the cold season, originally published in a 1977 issue of Waterways World magazine

As I pull my chair closer to the fire and relax on these dark, cold evenings, I find memories sometimes come floating back of winters on the cut. Like the times when you jump off the stern of the butty with a down-hill runner in your hands and take a couple of turns around the strapping stump to stop the butty from hitting the bottom gate as it enters the lock at 30mph, or so it seems. The runner tightens and slips through your hand and the tiny slivers of ice tear at your fingers and palms, making them bleed. And if you hold it tighter it breaks and you fall over backwards into a murky puddle of water and ice, while the butty hits the bottom gate knocking the kettle off the range, making the lace plates rattle together and bringing the brass rod crashing down in the butty’s cabin. Then you hear the captain’s voice shouting and swearing at what a stupid mate you are. A working boat at Blisworth on the Grand Union Canal in the depths of winter. You run down the…

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