Don’t spill a drop


The Royal Gunpowder Mills is riddled with canals.

It has to be. The site at Waltham Abbey, Essex, has been making explosives for 300 years but it’s a precarious business. Even back in 1660 there are deaths recorded in the local parish register which list explosives as their cause.

Sulphur, charcoal and saltpeter have been claiming lives for a long time. To make gunpowder you grind the ingredients, keeping them wet; but a jolt, or a tumble, and the dry mix, ground in early days using the power of water mills stationed along the river Lea and later by steam mills,  can rip apart everything in its immediate vicinity.

So yes: the site where gunpowder and explosives were manufactured for centuries has, as its main transportation, a forgiving transport which does not jolt or judder, which keeps things on the level and glides serene along its appointed course; the barge.

Virtually the whole network of canals at this extraordinary site is man-made. By the Self Preservation Society.

I thought of those canals, yesterday. I could have done with a nice big barge and a network of waterways.

My son is about to take an important exam: the 11+, for entrance to a local grammar school. He is working very hard, sometimes with a good grace, sometimes a weary curmudgeon.

Howsomever: we are trying to balance this hard work with play. He sat down to do a paper yesterday and completed it in time.

Well done, son, I said today. What would be your heart’s desire this evening?

A Kentucky Fried Chicken, he owned.

And so the plan was laid. Phil, myself and Felix would go to collect a takeaway at the restaurant which lay about 15 minutes away.

By bike.

The tactical thinkers amongst you will have spotted the flaw in this plan already. For with every meal comes a drink, and drinks are the devil’s own job to get home in a car, let alone on a bicycle.

The first time we thought about it was at the KFC counter. “What drink would you like?” chimed the girl, and I said, oh dear, I don’t think we want drinks, and she said, but Madam, it comes with the price of your meal.

And for Phil that sealed the deal. If we’ve paid for it, we’re having it, he said firmly.

I have two large panniers on the back of my bike. Large, baggy, undisciplined panniers. One held the boneless banquets and burgers splendidly; and then we set to work to bolster two cokes, ice included, and two chocolate milk shakes.

We tried everything, ineffectually, and failed. “Um….good luck…” Phil finished with the air of an officer sending his men into a hopeless raid.

We began.

I couldn’t look. I could hear the ice clunking around in the cokes and knew that one jolt- one slip on these municipal pavements which showed the kind of investment recession brings – would mean I trailed coke all the way home. How would I fit the panniers in the washing machine? I began to envisage. And where would I empty the milk shakes?

“Am I leaking?” I would holler at regular intervals, and my son, a fiendish grin on his face, would own that no, so far I was not leaving a trail.

All the way home we glided, like a gunpowder barge, every tiny sound or movement  a possible hazard.

I pulled up at our drive and we looked.

And unbelievably – I have no idea how – everything had stayed upright. I had the grace and stability of a barge. Hurrah, I chorused silently to myself.

And then I ate a victory burger.


34 thoughts on “Don’t spill a drop

    1. Roger, howsomever as defined by my old hero CT Onions and his Shakespeare glossary comes out as:”in whatever manner, to whatever degree “.Modern version: “Whatever….”

      There are some words that should be taken out, dusted off and their rhythm heard in the lilt of the English language once more. (*Stands on makeshift platform waving flag and rattling armour*)

      As soon as the cries for Harry, England and the Oxford Dictionary have died down, I shall potter off to see what other of Onion’s gems I can raise from the dead 😀

      1. Here, here. You know I sit with an old dictionary (or three, or four) at my elbow, adoring old words. Howsomever will be on my tongue evermore. As for KFC and those Cokes, well done.

  1. I would not have equated a bike with a barge for smoothness of movement, but you made. it, unexploded.
    Judging from your first version, though, the burger repeated on you. Judging from your first version, though, the burger repeated on you. Judging … 🙂

    1. Ha! You early bird, you: WordPress dealt me a nasty blow just as I pressed publish, and I had to hew half the post out with an axe in full view of cyberspace. Loved your comment today 😀

    1. Thanks, he will do his very best and that’s what we want. What happens is in the fulsome lap of Fate. Ho hum.

      It was serendipity indeed. I have no idea how I got away with it.

  2. I know this post- Spurs Fan hales from Waltham Abbey, Girl2 is preparing for the local 11+ also gets rewarded with healthy food 🙂 Not so much with the cycling though…

    1. I like Waltham Abbey immensely, and should try to get back to the Mills soon. It has been too long. So many stories hovering around there.
      There is nothing to bribe a reluctant 10 year old studying for unasked-for tests, than completely unsuitable cuisine.
      Pizza tonight.

  3. I just wonder how we got back to here with 11+ and all that stuff. Whatever, good luck to Felix (and speccy’s Girl2) whatever path they end up on. Well fed and loved.

      1. We just don’t need the labels – they are too insidious and creep in to be lived up to, or down to. Not good. i prefer the excite their interest school of education.

  4. As I got to the end where you said “I had the grace of a barge”, the first thing that came to mind is to never say this to my wife. As an aside, in the world of bomb design we call a detention “rapid dis-assembly”.

  5. I have occasionally visited Waltham Abbey to visit some graves and never knew that fireworks were manufactured there or even that there were any canals to see. I will definitely extend my visit next time to take in these local attractions. I do remember however that King Harold II is buried at the church under the King’s Stone. He probably turned over in his grave to learn that his subjects are eating KFC 🙂

  6. It sounds to me that you’ve come a long way in your bicycle riding expertise! Practice has paid off–and a degree of good luck perhaps? 🙂 You took me back in time a bit with this story. When my son was Felix’s age his biggest treat was the local KFC! It was easier to bring home in a car, but I’m sorry we didn’t think of taking our bicycles. What a lovely way to enjoy a takeaway run! I think I’d like to know more about the Self Preservation Society! What an interesting organization. Hats off to Felix! 🙂

  7. Well done, Kate ~ both the telling and the no-spilling.

    At first read, I saw 15 miles away (not minutes). And I thought you had gone bonkers . . . who rides a bike 30 miles round trip to get take out? :mrgreen:

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