Saturday 31 July 2010

May 2010 Paddington Basin

Paddington Basin is windy like Chicago, because of the tall office blocks. I envy the boat wife next door. I can see she has a washing machine on the front deck, and I can hear a proper hoover indoors. I used to have a hoover, a little 12 volt car hoover, fits into a lighter socket. It took ages to clean the boat and was fiddly to empty. Didn’t pick up hair, so still needed to sweep after. I had it for years, eventually it died. Now we are deciding what to get. Something with more power is bigger to store, where will we keep it? Can our invertor handle it? But is there any point to the time consuming tiny one which is intended only to clean an average sized car? So, while we decide, I sweep our floor on hands and knees with a dustpan and brush. It takes ages but it is possibly quicker than the little 12 volt hoover.

Anyway, I don’t envy her hoover as much as I envy her washing machine. It’s a little blue and white plastic twin tub, swashing away happily in the sunshine of the front deck. Taking two children, a double pushchair and a rucksack to the launderette seems like such a mission, once or twice a week.

When we were moored at The General Elliott pub in Uxbridge it was a forty minute walk to Cowley launderette. It’s a beautiful walk down the grassy towpath: Big Sister requesting that I pick her a dandelion ‘wish’ to blow the seeds off. (Dandelion Clock). There are notices advertising ‘Service Wash’, but I’ve never seen any staff in this particular launderette, so I’d organise a family trip out. Take a ‘picnic’ to the launderette, have lunch there while doing laundry, then try to entertain and contain Big Sister, while breast feeding her baby sister.

I used to imagine the life of a boater as dreamily romantic, but there’s nothing romantic about the image of me, breastfeeding in the launderette. (I later learned that the charming Toll House tea rooms by Cowley lock do service washes for boaters – and you can treat your toddler to sausage and chips when dropping off the laundry!)

Anyway, when I saw the neighbours washing machine I thought this could change our lives! I want to keep up with The Jones’s next door! The Doctor asked her about it and actually they are moving off the boat next week, so they could sell it to us. Mrs Jones is six months pregnant; they’ve decided not to have a baby aboard and are moving ashore. She is intrigued that we have two on board and The Doctor admits that we are at maximum capacity.

So that is how I got my very first washing machine.

May 2010 Uxbridge and Cowley

We spent a lovely month in Uxbridge as we had to get the hull blacked in the boat yard. We went to country pubs and local toddler groups. Then The Doctor suddenly got offered another science contract at the University, so we cruised back to London and put our travelling plans on hold!

Friday 30 July 2010

Kensal Green to Cowley

On day two of our journey we approached Harlesden, and I came out on deck to look at the pub where my boat life began; The Grand Junction Arms. Harlesden was once briefly considered the murder capital of London. There are lots of nail bars, Caribbean takeaways and betting shops. There are no book shops. The pub used to be a canal side tea shop and once provided stables for the working boaters to rest their horses. Now it overlooks a pleasant beer garden and when I first moored there that day with Trotter and his mate, there were four other boats permanently moored there. London moorings are like gold dust. I needed to find a mooring before buying a boat and so I’d been looking for possible sites, and asking in pubs with moorings. To be honest I only was able to get the mooring because a boater died...

Beyond my old mooring is the North Circular Aquaduct where the noisy rush of the dual carriageway below contrasts with us boats drifting quietly above. At Greenford I have memories of mooring with a couple I once knew, who lived on a pair of old working boats, and kept all their water in metal jugs (called Buckby cans) on the roof. On a sunny afternoon in Greenford he was painting roses and castles on his Buckby cans and she was teaching me how to spin wool, while we sat in the field below Horsenden Hill. We had a few boaters parties at Horsenden Hill too; sound systems, DJ’s and live bands sometimes. The Black Horse in Greenford I remember as a cosy pub where my friend was once moored as the mooring warden for a few years. Then we pass Northolt moorings, where Weedhatch got his name and Ellie killed the rabbits, and Willowtree marina – from which my Rough Diamond boating neighbour was evicted for pulling out a gun. But these are other boaters stories...

At Bulls Bridge there is a very sharp corner, and on my first time steering my own boat I was told ‘don’t worry, everyone crashes into it on their first time’.

From Bulls Bridge to West Drayton must be the most dismal stretch of canal I have ever seen. From the huge metal chimneys of the Nestle coffee factory to the graffiti on the walls by the towpath, it’s a grim industrial landscape. Occasionally you may notice the odd coconut floating down, allegedly from a Hindu ceremony in Southall. At least that’s what I heard on the towpath telegraph. Without fail it’s almost always raining whenever we travel this way too. I had volunteered to be the driver for a couple of hours and The Doctor was indoors with the children. But as we’ve been moored up for winter it’s been more than six months since I drove the boat and I felt exhilarated as I was reminded of the freedom we have by being able to move with our home.

Thursday 29 July 2010

Angel, Islington to Uxbridge.

April 2010

Angel, Islington to Uxbridge.

Space: The final frontier. With the arrival of the new baby we are testing the space limitations of a 57 foot narrowboat. These are the voyages of the narrowboat Grassington, a blue box that tardily travels through time and space, at a maximum speed of four miles per hour. Our mission; to travel the waterways we’ve never seen, to live the dream, to be boaters, travellers, writers and parents. For so long we’ve waited for the right time; to have enough money, or to discover the elusive way of earning a living while travelling. But the absolutely right time never comes, sometimes you just have to do it anyway. We might not have the biggest, most comfortable boat we had dreamed of, or the huge stash of savings to make the life easy, or the dream job, that meets all our mental and spiritual needs. You know the one, the job that we can work at from home while earning a decent income, and still spend quality time together as a family. But with one of us on maternity leave and one of us working in London we decided to cast off and let go. The handsome doctor and his winsome assistant.

“In twenty years from now, you’ll be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did. So throw off the bowline. Sail away from the safe harbour. Explore. Dream. Discover.”(1)

So we handed in our notice to leave the childminder and our six month winter mooring came to an end. A friend told me, “good luck with the move – what do you have to do to prepare?”

“Nothing,” I grinned, “just untie our mooring ropes”.

We left the mooring, in Angel, Islington, on Good Friday. It is overlooked by beautiful Georgian town houses and leafy overhanging trees. Both of my daughters were born at home, on board ‘Grassington’ on this mooring. A climbing rose marks the spot where my eldest was born. We leave behind a lot of emotions and memories here.

The weather is grim boating weather. Grey and raining, blustery and cold. The Doctor often does the driving, while I look after the kids. Big Sister is wailing that she doesn’t want Daddy to drive the boat. She wants him indoors with us. Baby sister is having her lunch-time nap in the baby hammock in the bedroom, but awakens after forty five minutes and will not settle. I promise Big Sister that she can play on dry land when we reach the boat yard at Kings Cross, but I have to break that promise when we arrive and it’s still raining. I amuse her by holding her up to the window and explaining a bit about how a lock works as the boat rises up.

“What’s that?” She asks.

“That’s just slime, on the wall of the lock – no don’t touch it!”

“And we’re going up and up and up?”

“That’s right!”

The benefit of the rain is that there is not the usual huge audience at Camden Lock. This lock is normally surrounded by gongoozlers enjoying a beer with the view, and no matter how many locks you have done in your life you can’t help feeling self conscious about doing it with so many spectators. If there’s a mooring space we said that we would stop in Camden, but there never is. So during a sunny gap in the April showers we wind our way through Regents Park and London Zoo, Lisson Grove and Maida Vale tunnel. At Little Venice a boat is already on the waterpoint so we decide to push on, to Kensal Green Sainsburys. This is our stop for the night.

This stretch of the Regents Canal used to be so familiar to me, but we’ve not travelled this way since before our first daughter was born, so it’s a little like a cruise down memory lane for me. Kensal Green is one of the closest things to the ‘countryside’ you can get on the London canals. The cut runs between the railway and Kensal Green cemetery. This cemetery is a wild and vast collection of angels and mausoleums, tombs and trees; steeped in history, so many memorials to loved ones departed. It has several famous residents and was the first designated burial ground for all, in London. My most interesting boating memory from here is noticing a canal boat with a coffin on the roof moor up at the ancient wrought iron canal-side gate. A group of mourners waited solemnly for the arrival and I concluded this to be some boaters last request, to arrive at his final destination on his own boat. Back in by-gone days, bodies were frequently delivered this way. The graveyard even has catacombs below the chapel and a lift system that would lower the coffin down through the floor of the chapel.

My other boating memory of Kensal Green is finding my eccentric Italian acquaintance moored there one day, confessing to me that he has killed one of the local geese.

“I eat goose for a week!” he grinned triumphantly.

My first boating memory of Kensal Green is ten years ago. I was thinking of buying a boat when I spotted two lads on two boats just casting off to head west towards Harlesden. When you’re fascinated by boating it’s always tempting to try to strike up a conversation with these mysterious boating people. (People often ask me the three same questions; Is that your boat? Do you live on that? And, Is it cold in winter?) As the second boater prepared to leave, I nervously approached him and asked,

“Do you know of any boats for sale?”

What happened next is best described by my poem.

James Hopper Bissett

Now there's a proper name

And he's a proper Hopper Bissett
The day that I met James

He was casting off Kingfisher

Which is his narrow boat

30ft by 6ft 10

A miracle afloat

Green and red with a make shift bed

It's got that lived in feel

Rough around the edges

6 ml of solid steel

I asked one little question

That was it and he was off

Rolling up a cigarette

Took a little puff

Looking just like mischief

He gives one of those grins

With a twinkle in his eye

One of his yarns begins.

I was standing on the towpath

So he offered me a cuppa

Then he offered me a lift

Assuring me he's not a nutter

Now that wasn't quite the truth..

But what about my bike?

He said, We'll put it on the roof

Take it with us if you like.

Cruising down the Cut

He told me all about it

He said when you get a boat

I know you're gonna like it.

And you won't believe the people

And the things that people do

But they're lovely water gypsies

In fact they're just like me and you.

He's got a dodgy tiller

So it's hard to steer the boat

It reminded me of festivals

The smell of woody smoke

In the flow I didn't want to

Interrupt his monologue

But looking down the towpath

I said Hopper where's your dog?

Oh no Polly! wailed Hopper

The Staffie that he loved

She's the sweetest little thing

But she's got a taste for blood.

She could be gone for hours

She's killed ducks and swans and cats

She's even gone for goats

And horses come to that.

It's embarrassing said James

That look that's in her eyes

When she returns I know that I

Have got to apologise

To a farmer or an owner

Of an unsuspecting pet

So I've had to get a muzzle

And I don't know where she gets

Her psycho attitude

It's not that I don't feed her!

Got a disobedience prize

In the dog show at Wendover.

Yes the festival Wendover

In the beer tent I recall

He held our table spellbound

With his stories that are tall

About the times he was arrested

And all those times of hardship

And the trials and tribulations

Of living in a skip

Oh there's nowt as queer as folk

Nothings stranger than the truth

But you would not believe

What he got up to in his youth

And I think I'll leave it there

Because this is not my story

I've already said too much

I think James is gonna kill me

You've gotta see it to believe it

I should have changed the names

But this goes out to you

Miss Polly and Kingfisher James.

(1) Mark Twain did not say that! The quote belongs to H. Jackson Brown's mother. See page 13 in Brown's 1991 book: P.S. I Love You: When Mom Wrote, She Always Saved the Best for Last.
That's What He Said: Quoting Mark Twain (Huffington Post)