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.
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.
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.