Monday 27 September 2010

You Are My Sunshine

Tuesday 3rd August

Got up, got everybody breakfast, got baby sister dressed, got big sister dressed in pants, dress and cardigan. I return to the living room. A moment later, big sister comes out of the bedroom completely naked. Sunshine is streaming in through the window and reflecting sunny river ripples on to the tongue and groove ceiling. She dances naked around the living room to the tune of “You Are My Sunshine” playing on the stereo. Golden sunshine ripples around the boat and through my heart.

The Doctor has just gone to ‘work’ in his new ‘job’ as a writer. I use inverted comma’s not to devalue his work but to indicate that as yet, the job is unpaid! He left our heavenly field on a bicycle and cycled up the towpath towards his new ‘office’ (Harlow Library). Today I am a ‘homemaker’, but I also imagine myself like the legendary single mum, J.K Rowling, who allegedly snatched moments to write in cafes, while her toddler slept. There are occasionally, magical, miraculous in-betweeny moments when both my children are napping at the same time for half an hour. Then, if I’m not cleaning the bathroom or washing the dishes I satisfy my relentless urge to tumble words out of my head and describe the chaotic beauty of the world I see around me.

A Poet Finds Delight

A poet finds delight
In the empty sky at night
The stars don't shine they glitter
The birds don't sing they twitter
The sun don't beam it radiates
The rain don't rain it contemplates
The worms that wriggle
When bluebells giggle
And rinses out our yesterdays
To make room for tomorrow
The city’s a hive of activity
Of multicultural intensity
And humans contain astounding extremes
Of venomous lies and heavenly dreams
These are fractions of fiction and things still unwritten
And writings a bug that has to be bitten
If you can never completely describe it, you know it
You know you are thinking a bit like a poet!

Contact From The Multiversity

Monday 2nd August.

The water tank ran out of water, so we cast off the ropes and headed up the cut towards Harlow. There is a tap at Moorhen Marina. But below the next lock we found it is wide enough to turn the boat. Shall we carry on or turn around? We have a brief debate and quickly agree that we’d like to stay in this beautiful place for as long as possible. So we wind the boat and head back down to Roydon Lock, where The Lady of the Lock allows boaters to fill up with water at her tap. Moored in the lock with hosepipe in position we let Big Sister pull the bell string to summon The Husband of The Lady of The Lock. Friendly and down to earth, I can read “Love and Hate” tattooed across his knuckles as I declare that I would like to buy a dozen free range eggs and a loaf of bread.

We then return to the field, but moor a little further up in an even better place with an even better view. We have effectively moved to an even better part of heaven.

But today is the last day of our holiday. The Doctor is supposed to return to work at The University tomorrow, and I wonder how I will feel, once more being starved of adult conversation and trying to multi-task my ass off for most of the day.

Then, The Doctor takes a telephone call. He wanders up the towpath to talk without being disturbed by the children, but I can ascertain that it is news from The Multiversity. The complicated and convoluted route that the research funding takes, is taking another detour and to cut a long story short The Doctor cannot return to work until at least September.

We sit on deckchairs in the field with a glass of whisky each, and absorb the news. Our girls play beside our feet on the play mat. We decide that this is it. If only for a month, we live the dream. We live in a beautiful place and begin to write. We will alternate writing days and childcare days. We will write books and look after our children. We will live beside a beautiful meadow on a narrowboat.

The Blog Begins

Wednesday 28th July.

The Doctor is not on board. The girls are in bed. I have a rare moment to myself, completely alone (except for those two girls in bed). My miserable monologue is even taking a break, so I have a bit of peace and quiet to just stare at the sun setting over the field. I think sometimes perhaps, in my mind, I am too hard on The Doctor. I expect too much of him. Our lifestyle geographically isolates us from our friends and so I depend on him for most of my emotional needs. While I’m on maternity leave I don’t even socialise with other humans at work, so it’s just me, my monologue, the girls and The Doctor. Perhaps by blogging I can deflect some of the monologue’s misery away from The Doctor and out into the cosmos to join up with other miseries and dissipate into the misery sea. At the moment I am typing up my hand written diaries with the idea to post them as a blog – when we’re moored in a place that I can get mobile internet access. At the moment I am just over a month behind myself, that is I’m currently typing up what I wrote a month ago. This has the effect of a kind of time travel. As I type, I relive the thoughts that I had a month or two ago and see what has changed, how I feel and what I was thinking of.

Hunsdon Mead

Tuesday 27th July

I dreamed of a big red wide-beam (which is shaped like a narrowboat but wider). The girl who lives on board showed me around. I can see where my girls would have their own separate bedroom if it were mine. There are two bed-cabins on board and a big living room, with a window view at the bow end from which you can relax and look down the cut: space. The girl says that she will sell it for about forty grand and I start to wonder how I can get the money. In this dream, anything is possible. The cost of freedom is a lack of space.

We moved the boat a couple of wiggly river bends up, so that we are moored in the middle of Hunsdon Mead, it’s like it is our front garden. Sixty-seven acres of flat ancient hay meadow, with an assortment of river-loving trees at the far side, stretches before us. The seasons allow it to display cowslips, green-winged orchids, ragged robin and meadowsweet, while butterflies, dragonflies and damsel flies hover above. Between the towpath and our boat is a strip of grass big enough to put the play mat on, so that our baby can sit and giggle at me doing the dishes as I watch her from the kitchen window. The navigation is deep enough here that we can moor without using a gangplank. My daughter runs wild and free in the meadow so long as we safely watch her from outside the boat. Wild flowers grow in the long grassy golden meadow until July when The Wildlife Trust chop it all and make it into hay. This common land has been farmed by local people using the Lammas system for 600 years. From July onwards it is used as grazing land for livestock and it is currently sprinkled with buttercup dots. So now it’s green and cut short for summer and a huge committee of self-important geese meet for a late afternoon business conference right in the middle. Big Sister said,
“There are miles and miles of geese!”

There’s something very beautifully dramatic about pegging out a load of laundry on the line, while stormy clouds gather across the summer sky above the vast flat field before me. Even behind me is nothing but grazing land and a railway, I cannot even see another boat. I feel connected to women throughout the ages who have hung out their family laundry in a desolate natural place, solitary, watching the elements gather ominous stormy power. Of course those ancestral mothers did not have their laundry machine-washed for them by the good Lady of the Lock. (She is not to be confused with The Lady of Shalott; the maiden in Arthurian Romances, who died because her love for Sir Lancelot of the Lake was unrequited.)

Later, the girls are in bed and The Lady of the Lock delivered my clean and dried laundry around to the boat.
“It’s no trouble, I’m just walking the dogs.”
I could really get used to living here.

When I’m doing the dishes I can look out across the meadow and I think that I have died and gone to boater’s heaven. All I need is a beautiful view and The Lady of the Lock to do my laundry.

“But Lancelot mused a little space;
He said, ‘She has a lovely face;
God in his mercy lend her grace,”
The Lady of the Lock.

(Adapted from Tennyson’s poem, 1832)

We sat in deckchairs beside the towpath for dinner, our boat behind us and the flat expanse of green before us and watched the sunset paint pink and orange clouds shining across the sky in stretchy puffs and wafts. Spectacular. The willows and other trees at the far edge of the field frame the sky line and guard the real River Stort. The Stort Navigation has stolen most of the little Stort’s water and so she shambles along like a stream around the edges of the water meadows.

When people in films dream that they’ve died and gone to heaven, this is the kind of summer meadow they tend to find themselves running across in slow-motion. The Doctor and I note how rare it is for us to be able to see for a long distance to the horizon: like looking out to sea. Obviously in London we have no vision space. Although the rivers and canals have been beautiful here, we are usually hemmed safely in by trees or hedges of some sort. To be able to see some distance around, in all directions gives us a great sense of peace. We discuss our theory that this feeling is an evolutionary imprint from our ancestors, that a human might feel safe from attack, or able to see danger from afar, by being on an exposed plane like this.

Space. The final frontier. We had to come a long way to find it. We feel like we have arrived. We have come home.

Roydon, Essex

Monday 26th July

Preparing to cruise up the Stort The Doctor removed everything from the roof as the Stort has very low bridges. At ‘Lower Lock’ the ‘w’ has been half blacked out so that it reads ‘Lover Lock’. We cruise past a stunning, golden rolling wheat field and Big Sister asks me,

“Is that where Weetabix comes from?” I decide to run from Lower Lock to the next lock with a windlass and a buggy full of children, so that I can set the lock ready for The Doctor to cruise easily into it without mooring up. In the old days this was known as ‘lock wheeling’. Although it was not done while jogging over lumps and bumps with a heavy three wheeled pushchair doing it’s very best in the off-road circumstances. I meet a happy dog and his boating bachelor master. He grins at me running and says,
“That’s one way to exercise!”
Brick Lock Cottage is for sale, and I think it comes with a number of boat moorings to rent out, so it is a home and a business. It is one of the most charming little, quirky arched windowed lock cottages I have ever seen. I fantasise about being rich enough to buy it, but then my fantasy changes to me possibly gazing longingly from the windows as the boats go by and wondering if I’d be happier living back on board.

Paul Wallace estate agents describe it as “Delightfully situated on the banks of the River Stort surrounded by open farmland, this very attractive 3 bedroom Grade ll listed Georgian cottage was built in 1830 with Gothic style windows and is set in grounds of 1/3 acre and has a 2.5 acre island with 1800 ft of riverside moorings and fishing rights.”
This 3 Bed Detached House in Roydon invites offers over £750,000
This little stretch of the river is probably my absolutely favourite and best in all of my cruising experience (which is limited to the Grand Union Canal, Bugbrooke to London, plus the rivers Lea and Stort.) It meanders through wild flowers, yellow wheat fields, gorgeous trees and charming locks.

And yet, I am most excited about a rumour that I heard on the towpath telegraph that the lady at the next lock cottage will do laundry for boaters! We cruised past Barge Mum’s old narrow boat on the journey, it is named after her rag-doll sewing business, Bobby Dazzler. Then I had to go inside at Roydon Lock to change a pooey nappy and make the baby’s lunch. But out of the window I read a cheery chalk board sign that told me the rumour is true;

‘Welcome to Roydon Lock 13. Washing/drying machine facilities. Windlass for sale. Ice creams and lollies. Free Range Eggs (large).’

We cruise on up the river, and pass The Whisky Bench. Two years ago when we moored above Roydon Lock , The Doctor would come to this bench of an evening for a manly moment alone, and a stiff drink.

Five minutes further on and we moor up at Hunsdon Mead Nature Reserve. After the engine stops the steel deck-boards are still warm. With bare feet I feel like a cat on a hot tin deck-board. Hunsdon Mead is really the end of the rainbow for us. We can see it from the window. Vibrantly buzzing grasses with all of nature wittering along in joyful harmony; it is an expanse of flat space that frees the mind.

We walked down to the lock and I bought an ice lolly for my daughter and asked The Lady of The Lock Cottage about laundry. She even sells milk and bread and when she saw that I have two kids and we were chatting for a while she kindly says,
“Anything you need, I could pick it up for you when I’m out shopping! Just let me know yeah?”
I meet her eighteen month old granddaughter and she’s impressed that I had both mine on board the boat; homebirths.
“I love Roydon,” I tell her.
“Oh so do I,” she smiles. “I grew up in the village. My mum lived in the old lock cottage, which used to be on the other side.” She points below the lock. “She played in those fields as a child.”

On the way back from the lock cottage a couple of bachelor boaters stop me and chat from their back deck, sharing all sorts of useful local knowledge. I said that the Lady of The Lock seems to provide everything that a boater could need, it would be easy to just live around here and settle down!
“So, what’s it like around here on the towpath?”
They know what I am asking them.
“Well,” says sketchy bachelor number one, taking a drag of his roll up cigarette, “our warden is in Scotland, has been for months, so we’re either run from Devizes or Milton Keynes now. But we’ve not seen anyone around. We’ve been here a few weeks with no trouble. Where’ve you come from?”
“We normally spend our winters in Angel, I mean in London, but it would be pretty good to spend all year round up here I reckon."
“Yeah,” says boater number two, (who is not sketchy at all, to be fair).
“Except it floods here in winter, water level rises and comes over the top of the banks, the lock overflows and the fields down there are water-logged.”
“Wow, so you just can’t moor?”
“Not for three months. About October to January. We usually go up to St. Margarets. You can get stuck here. I’ve known a boat to get stuck on that bend below the lock down there, the water level risen so you can’t get your boat under the really low bridge – and have to wade through flooded fields to get anywhere!”

The bachelor boats are ensconced at their mooring. There are flower tubs among the nettles, a doormat on the towpath by the back door, and solar lights planted in the grass to light the way home. A purring generator is comfortably appointed under a director’s chair which protects from the rain. The Lady of the Lock says that they’ve even made a den in the woods, “with hammocks and lanterns and everything!”

The bachelor boys made me feel very welcome to the area and invited me to drop by later for a couple of beers on the back deck.

But when the children were in bed I had dinner and wine on my own back deck with The Doctor, and someone cycled over our gangplank, the reverberations of which shattered The Doctor’s wine glass resting there beside his feet. The holy trinity of The Doctor, wine and cheese is the happiness of my life.

We are moored in very shallow water so the boat is partly run aground and listing a lot. This makes the fridge struggle constantly and noisily to keep it’s cool. We think that it’s going to keep us awake at night, so The Doctor jams a wooden spoon underneath it so that the fridge stands upright again.

Friday 17 September 2010

Plastic Massacre

Wednesday 21st July

This morning I made my way across a battle field of tiny plastic people who lie on their backs, still and lifeless, with their arms spread; a scene of devastation on the carpet. I call it a Plastic Massacre. It is difficult to pick your way across a plastic people minefield, when your territory is more like a corridor than a room. Another day I caught baby sister trying to bite the head off Plastic Jesus. It’s a dangerous world out there for the plastics.

This afternoon I completed a fifty minute walk on baking hot tarmac through soulless suburbia, with pushchair, baby and two loads of laundry. Arrived at the launderette and it was shut; not happy. Fifty minute walk home again. On this occasion The Launderette Equation produces a result of; not worth it.

Home Schooling

Tuesday July 20-th ish (losing track of dates)

I took Big Sister out for a walk this afternoon, while The Doctor stayed home with the baby. It was beautifully warm but slightly cloudy, so not sun-burn weather. We intrepidly left the towpath, fighting through nettles and grasses to a nature trail that lead to the lake, Glen Faba. The walk there is all woodland and wild flowers, and the arrival is all long grass and calm rippling water. We can see two swans gliding about beside a miniature beach, so, barefooted, me and my two year old daughter roamed along grassy pathways to get there. The grass is warm under our bare feet, the ‘beach’ stones are prickly on our soles. Our sandals are strewn by the water’s edge and the water is cold to our ankles. I tell my daughter that the swans don’t mind if we share their lake; she is loving the experience, splashing up water with her hands and getting her hair wet. On the way home she runs towards me, barefoot through grass like a slow motion, perfect and tranquil childhood scene.

We’ve now met the boat family round the bend. They are actually moored at the next bend in the river, and have two children on board. We were invited around for juice and to play. We talked a lot about home schooling, because that is what they are doing. It makes it easier for them to move around, and the child chooses himself what he likes to learn.
“He’s into nature, he watches a lot of David Attenborough DVD’s and he goes out on his bike a lot. But he’s not so into Maths. Or English.”

The Stort Pit

Glen Faba and The Stort Pit are manmade lakes; the result of the sand and gravel extraction industry in the Lea Valley. My eldest daughter and I have enjoyed barefoot running through grass pathways beside the lakes, among tall grasses and wildflowers, purple, yellow, white and blue, sword fighting with twigs and giggling, paddling at the edges getting hems of dresses wet, throwing stones, splashing in gravel on the lake bed prickly under our bare feet. Big Sister running and laughing through grass,
“Catch me!” she sings as she runs towards me. “I want a piggy back ride,” and as I begin to carry her she giggles,
“Am I a piggy?” and,
“Do you love me even when I am naughty?”
“Yes.” I confirm.
“Even when I hit? Even if I hit everybody in the world?”
“I would be sad that you were hitting people,” I muse, “but I would still love you. I would not love the behaviour! But I think I will always love you.”
“Is this a kissing gate?”
“Where people kiss their mummies? And little boys kiss their daddies?”
And here is a cherry tree from which one of our bachelor boating neighbours made a cherry crumble. It’s a golden grassy sunshiney blue lake day.

The Motherboard Top Ten

Ten things that are different about mothering on board (although all boats are different so this is very subjective).

1) Boiling the kettle to wash the dishes, but only if you haven’t pre-emptively put the hot water on to heat up, which we do sometimes if you’re going to be using more hot water later, e.g for baths or showers.

2) Keeping the pushchair outside on deck with the rain-cover on it, and having to bring all other child related paraphernalia indoors.

3) ‘Controlled crying’ in a confined space: experimenting with different baby hammock locations and trying not to keep her big sister awake.

4) Packing our futon bed away to make it into a sofa every morning. Making it up into a bed again every night. The futon “suitable for occasional use as a bed” is now falling apart. It is one month older than the baby. Big Sister keeps re-screwing a rogue washer back on to it for us, “so that mummy doesn’t fall out of bed”.

5) Unable to freeze cubed portions of mush for baby weaning. Our freezer capacity is a small ice compartment in the fridge. I suffer guilt that I’m not providing homemade organic mush and use baby jars instead.

6) You have to tidy up as you go along because every space doubles as something else. Big sister’s bedroom is a nappy change area during the day. The living room floor is a play area covered with a soft play mat, but after tea becomes the ‘change the children into their pyjamas’ area. Then the play mat is folded away and a lap top computer on a small wooden stool turns the living room into a home cinema for the adults in the evening. We must clear the kitchen worktop of dishes before we are able to make the next meal. The dining booth can be the creative make-a-card gluing and sticking area, dinner table for two children or a family of four, or most often: the place to dump paperwork, post and stuff that we’re meaning to read. To eat a meal at the table we would cry “clear the booth!” with the mock urgency of our best hospital casualty department voices, meaning, prepare the area for use! Also, the booth can become a spare bed, a single bed for a visiting guest (like Dr Swan). The table folds down, and the four chair cushions become a mattress.

7) Big Sister has been learning to walk the gang plank above a perilous drop of nettles and the river below. It is not an adventure activity one would normally encourage in a two year old, but as it’s part of our lifestyle it’s something that we feel she needs to learn, under close supervision of course!

8) She has also learned to get confidently on and off the boat without a gang plank, when we are moored nearer to the edge. If there is no gap she can safely climb onto the gunwale, hold tightly to the edge of the boat and then step safely onto the grass.

9) Three trips to the launderette every week.

10) You can live where ever you like and change that place every two weeks.

Saturday 11 September 2010

The Boatman

Sunday 25th July

Dr Swan is here to visit and staying on board for the weekend. We are sat on the back deck and I’m telling him that our boating neighbours are so often single men, often drinkers, often divorced and sometimes ‘escaping’ from society. Less common are couples and very rare are families. I told him that I once re-wrote the lyrics to the Boatman song by the Levellers to describe the different types of people you might find on the cut.

The Boatman

“if i could choose the life i please then i would be a boat man
on the canals and the rivers free no hasty words are spoken
my only law is the river breeze that takes me to the open seas
If i could choose the life i please then i would be a boat man”

- The Levellers

if i could choose the life i please i'd be a water pikie
that plant pot growing on the roof is ganja more than likely
my only law is gaffa tape it gets yer boat lookin ship shape
If i could choose the life i please i'd be a water pikie

if i could choose the life i please then i would be a boat yard
to get your boat fixed up down here will over load your credit card
and if you break down on the cut we're gonna charge you mega bucks
so if you need to get towed out make sure you call the boat yard

if we could choose the life we please then we could be brass polishers
Our mushroom vents and horse brasses could not get any shinier
There's lace doilies in our port holes and two ridiculous rag dolls
The boaters call us Rosy n Jims because we are brass polishers

if i could choose the life i please then i would be a fisherman
Just sitting fishing in the rain the waterways militia-man
Boaters barge into my rod
then give a friendly boating nod
They think the cut was built for boats
I wish I threw my fish at em.

But we all choose the life we please and some of us are boat men
on the canals and the rivers free no hasty words are spoken
my only law's the river breeze that takes me to the open seas
We can all choose the life we please and some of us are boat men.

We are sat among the wildflowers on the riverbank, under the trees, watching the hire boats go by – they are always bad drivers. Posh Tupperware boats on daytrips go past our boat too fast. The etiquette is to slow down past moored craft or your wake will rock our boat and at its worst can pull our mooring pegs out of the ground.

I am feeling more calm even though I am still busy. Big Sister woke three times last night. I think I need to invent another scientific equation to calculate anxiety levels.

(Number of times woken by children) - (estimated hours of sleep lost) x (your age), and double that number to find the percentage of anxiety likely to be experienced the next day.

If this figure is over seventy percent you will be in tears by mid-afternoon. If it is over ninety percent there is a good chance that you will blame your partner for everything and start a row. This can be illustrated thus:

(Sleep deprivation induced anxiety) x (units of alcohol) + (name and blame) = verbal dispute.

Life on the River Stort

Monday 19th July

I begin online research to find a nursery place for Big Sister in Islington. This is assuming that we can get a winter mooring in Angel, this year. It seems to get more popular and therefore more difficult to get a mooring place each year. It is kind of our ‘home’ mooring as our GP, childminder, friends and work are all there.

This afternoon the whole family went for a reconnaissance up the Stort on foot, to see where we’d like to moor next. We discovered a bright golden wheat field against a vast back drop of pure blue sky. It’s impossible to describe with words how stunning it is, so perhaps I should return to painting instead. We see blue damsel flies darting around above waist-high nettles on our way home, and later that night I spy half a moon peeping at me above the silent silhouettes of the dark trees on the towpath.


A two hour battle with London transport to get home is totally worth it to see dappled sunlight shining through woodland onto my boat as I arrive at my destination. The water reflects a leafy serenity. The girls and I went to London to meet up with a group of my Islington mummy friends. Our picnic was rained off so we ended up in a child friendly pub. Later in a rain soaked park, my friend asked me how I’m finding it with two children on the boat now, and I burst into tears.


I dreamed I fell asleep in the bath, then I dreamed I put the baby’s fleece on the hob when boiling the kettle, and then I dreamed that I was telling The Doctor that I’m so tired. So now I’m dreaming about how tired I am! I woke up, fed the baby and went off to Big Sister’s room to try to catch up on sleep. But it’s hard to sleep when I can hear the children playing in the room next door, and there’s not even a door between us, just a few feet of boat corridor.

Mothers Chores

Saturday 17th July

At lunchtime I cut the crusts off the baby’s bread and threw them out the window to a gang of geese waiting there.

When The Doctor is in the house my workload is still relentless but I am calm. I can feel satisfaction in completing one job and going on to the next. Today: breakfast, wash and dress kids, help pack bed away, get play mat and toys out, boil the kettle to do the dishes, do dishes, tidy table, make baby’s lunch, feed baby, and tidy Big Sister’s toys up while she’s at the shops with The Doctor.

Launderette Country

Beware ye boat wives the distance ye moor from the launderette. With the double pushchair and a rucksack I can take two loads of washing (one dark, one light) and there’s still room for the children! St Margaret’s vicarage is also encased in holly. Is this a holy thing? To be hedged in and protected by sacred prickles? As I push the buggy down a leafy country lane, five bedroom family homes with pillar-flanked front doors make way for semi-detached suburbia and trades men’s vans; subcontractors of the construction industry. A warning to the intrepid Boat-Wife, you are now entering Launderette Country.

The ‘get fit’ trainers are now discarded, I am trip-trapping in my red sandals past a golden cropfield of cricket noises – the insect not the ballgame. At the brow of the hill we pass the redbrick Victorian waterworks with the round window.

Back home I use the internet to locate local parks and The Doctor takes baby sister swimming. My daughter and I sample two different playgrounds in the summer sun. She covers one eye.
“Why are you doing that?” I asked.
“I’m winking,” she replied.

Secret House Wish

Thursday 15th July

Big Sister asks for water to play in the bathroom sink. I organise it and she writhes on the floor in a screaming tantrum because she actually wants to play with water in a bucket on the back deck. She asks me to take her for a wee, I ask can she do it herself as I’m eating my lunch? (I’m starving and shaky, I might be having a ‘sugar crash’.) Big sister throws a tantrum again and wees on the floor. I calmly deal with this, clean and change her, and now she wants to sit on her toy box. I move the toy box away from the wee puddle and secure the lid so that it’s ready to sit on. A third tantrum ensues because there is something about this arrangement that she doesn’t like. I lose my rag and scream at her. I begin to seriously consider The Doctor’s offer of looking after the kids – he would love to do it, and I could go out to work.

Changing a nappy in the bedroom I hear the wind blow something off the roof, and I watch from the window as a blue plastic water container floats off down the river. I put the baby in a safe place and put my eldest daughter in front of the computer, watching a film. I run down the towpath with a broom to retrieve the container, then check on the children by peering in the window. The boat is moored at an extremely jaunty angle (forty-five degrees) and swaying in the wind, thudding against the concrete towpath, doing the hull no good at all. So, the ropes need tightening. Struggling against the wind and awkwardly placed bollards this is like re-mooring up on a very windy day and takes me the entire duration of the Baby Einstein DVD. One to add to the list of odd jobs that boat-mums do that house-mums don’t. In a wider sense, it’s all part of my eternal rhetorical question – would I secretly rather live in a house?

I had a lot of negative ‘glass half empty’ thoughts today, but I am very tired. I must remember that lack of sleep is a cause of depression in itself. Maybe my brain just goes into anxiety circles because it’s not functioning on full power. The fact is, I am tired, but things are good. That’s how it is.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

We used to call it ‘Play School’.

Thursday 15th July

We are continuing our Summer 2010 tour of middle England toddler groups. We arrive at a charming church hall and all the cars in the car park are black range rovers and BMW’s.
“Hayley, we’ve got a new one!”
Hayley, a qualified playgroup assistant, is sat at the table collecting money but she says that my first time is free. The notice-board knitters proudly smile down at me from photos, having raised £1000 for the church heating fund. My daughter, dressed as a pirate, offers me juice, then wine, and then plastic dinner for her baby sister. I fantasise that the local news might be, ‘Cat Stuck Up Tree!’ I wish I lived somewhere like this. Then I realised that I do – I have a riverside view. But the local news stand in the high street declared that the local news is actually ‘Man Stabbed in Stanstead Abbots Fracas’.

To get from the play area to the toilets clutching baby and supervising my eldest, I fumble with the mechanism of the stair gates. I can’t use stair gates, so I clumsily struggle and then climb over. We don’t have stair gates at home, because we don’t have stairs.

Back in the play room daylight streams through a tall window. I have a bleary eyed view of the allotments below. It’s an underwater day. Why are there two peacocks wandering around the church garden? That must be the lesser known proverb, ‘you know it’s a high-class area when peacocks graze in the churchyard’.

Teddy Club is held on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at the church hall in Stanstead Abbotts.
“The club is aimed at children up to three years old, accompanied by their mother/father/guardian/childminder etc. There are experienced staff to oversee the activities and the object is for parents and children to socialise.”

This is in contrast to the leaflet I picked up for a pre-school music group for babies and toddlers. The sessions can help your child to be ...

“A skilful communicator by developing language and co-ordination
Emotionally developed through sharing stories and songs whilst meeting new friends
A confident child by joining in the activities in a relaxed group atmosphere
A creative child by letting the children explore the instruments, sounds, rhythm and movement
Each structured session encourages cognitive, physical and emotional development through the use of music, instruments and stories.”

Don’t get me started. I much prefer the remit of Stanstead Abbot’s playgroup where the aim is simply to socialise. Hurrah! Let’s not suggest that children need structured activities to develop to their full potential. Just let them play for goodness sake. And let the mother’s drink coffee and moan and gossip. Sorry, but I come from the seventies when a play group was a play group and did not pretend to be pre-preschool for pre-schoolers.

And Your Specialist Subject Is....

Today we are leaving the beautifully isolated Dobb’s Weir. There is a bus service here. It goes on Wednesdays to the supermarket in Hoddesdon: once a week.

At Fieldes Weir lock my daughter disobeyed Lock Rule Number One three times while laughing manically, and I found myself singing ‘Wind the Paddle Up’, to the tune of ‘Wind the Bobbin Up’ while opening the paddles. Changing a nappy full of diarrhoea (third one today) can be joyful if the river Lea is chugging peacefully past the window in all its glory; reeds standing to attention, and three ducks milling about, probably gossiping about the swans. The scenery rolls by like one of those Mothercare wind-up toy televisions.

So the plan was to stop briefly before the lock where the Lee and Stort split, moor up and fill the water tank, and empty the rubbish. Then we would turn right, off the Lea and up the beautiful, stunningly scenic River Stort, select some idealistic offside mooring in the middle of nowhere and set up camp; paddling pool, sun umbrella, table and deckchairs. It would be like having a garden for a while. We could even have an outdoor office table at which to write our books. But more stuff has changed since our previous voyage to these waters, two years ago. We moored up but there’s no tap, and no longer any rubbish point. Yet Boat-Dad-from-two-years-ago, on the permanent mooring opposite, remembers us as if we’d never been away, and stops to chat at our window. He tells us our best bet for the nearest rubbish disposal point is the skip boat further up the Lea, and the next tap is Stanstead Abbotts. So the idyllic peace of The Stort must wait a while longer. Perhaps we should get an updated canal guide; ours is about fifteen years old.

We cruise up the Lee and moor up in Stanstead Abbotts for the night. We briefly explored the village and sat in a beer garden that has playground equipment. It starts raining and we move to a table under an apple tree. The sign reads: ‘Beware of Falling Apples. I. Newton.’

Near our mooring the paving stones beside the towpath have William Blake’s poetry carved into them. I found his grave recently when we went for a picnic with the childminder in Bunhill Fields, and Big Sister sometimes asks me to read ‘Little Boy Lost’ instead of a bedtime story. I’m beginning to think William Blake might be haunting me.


He who binds to himself a joy
Does the winged life destroy
But he who kisses the joy as it flies
Lives in eternity’s sunrise.

William Blake

We had dinner on the back deck after a rain shower.
“I was thinking of getting the...”
“Yes, I agree,” interrupted The Doctor.
“How do you know what...?”
“Sorry, I’m thirty seconds ahead of myself,” he retorted.
“I was going to say, I would put the yellow folding chairs on the back deck for dinner because the deckchairs are wet.”
“I agree,” he said.
“You’re like that Ronnie Corbett sketch...”
“When he’s on Mastermind...”
“And your specialist subject is..”
"Answering the question before last".

Lock Rules for Under Fives

We’re cruising up the river, fringed with waist-high reeds and bull rushes. The Doctor tells our eldest that they look like her ‘stick burgers’, which is what she calls kofta kebabs. Floating lily pads pave the water’s edge, and pink and purple flowers are among the bushes and trees. A warm breeze rustles the leaves across the clouded skies, the river is bending and winding, the boat is gliding. I make a mental note to myself: sellotape a list of ‘lock rules’ to the kitchen cupboard door and brainwash Big Sister to repeat them back to me until she understands them.

The Lock Rules for Under Fives

1) No running
2) Stay close to a grown up
3) Hold hands when told to
4) Keep away from the edge
Carthagena lock is the first lock, bedecked with welcoming hanging baskets, dangling from a black and white iron footbridge. One solitary coot earnestly goes about his business under a shady riverside bush. Big Sister, unimpressed by the river’s stunning beauty is back indoors by the second lock; watching The Wiggles DVD. I’m not sure what’s happened to my music taste but I am starting to like The Wiggles. I sing along as I do the dishes and consider going to see them live in concert.

The boat is rising up the lock, slimy lock walls recede down past the kitchen window as my eyes become level with the paved lock-side. In front of the black and white railings the BW sign reads, ‘Dobbs Weir Lock, Lee and Stort Navigations’. White painted bollards sport grooved injuries from years of ropes running around them. We leave the lock and attempt to moor up. Purple flowered towpath weeds respectfully acknowledge our arrival with polite nodding. But our boat’s draught is too deep. We can’t moor here, we can’t get close enough to the bank, so they sagely nod at our departure. There is a low grating, gravelly sound as our hull scrapes the bottom. So we turn the corner to arrive at The Fish and Eels Hotel, where patrons are welcome to moor. It is an olde worlde style traditional English pub overlooking the wide weir and water-lilies. There are no other buildings to be seen, just reeds and grasses and trees and an expanse of cloud-reflecting river stretching promisingly north east and away. As soon as the mooring ropes are tied to the rings provided, The Doctor politely hastens to make himself a patron of the pub, and therefore justify our use of the mooring. I picture the captain alone in a brown leather armchair, at a table with his pint and a science book about The Multiverse. It is a chance to recalibrate the man within and replenish the solitary peace of the soul.

Dobb’s Weir is an old manual gated weir that used to control water levels n the navigation, especially during heavy rain. “Auto weirs” now manage the water flow in the Flood Relief Channel. Instead of the familiar roar of the traffic on City Road, (at our winter mooring,) there is the white noise of the weir descending to the water level below.

That night we had dinner in the beer garden. It is the only pub we can go to where a babysitter is not required. We can see our boat from our table and can keep an eye on our kids while eating ‘out’. Fantastic!

Toddler Group

Tuesday 13th July

I took Big Sister to ‘Rhyme Time, a themed art/craft and music group for pre-schoolers at Broxbourne Parish Centre’ (the church hall behind the church). On my way I pointed out the tall holly hedge surrounding the vicarage.
“This plant is called holly”.
Big sister finds this peculiar.
“That’s funny that bush is called holly!” she giggles.
When we arrive at the church hall she takes off her sandals and runs about on the wooden floor, squealing and jumping from circular mat to mat, like a frog on primary coloured lily pads. I am The New Girl. The other ten mothers all know each other and come every week. We are told to select which hexagonal knee-high table we’d like to sit at. This one if you want to make a sheep and that one if you want to make a pig. My daughter wants to make a pig and we choose our plastic chairs and make an excellent pig out of a milk bottle and bits of pink felt.
“Our theme is Creation at the moment, so it’s a different animal every week. Last week it was bats.”
After arts and crafts we make our way to the coloured lily pad floor mats and rhyme time kicks off with the popular crowd-pleaser ‘Sleeping Bunnies’. If you’ve never seen this enacted, a room full of toddlers sleeping quietly like bunnies on the floor, and then all jumping up to hop like excited jumping bunnies is just the cutest thing. Then we move on to a bunch of songs I’ve never heard before, all with a religious animal theme. There was something about the cow says ‘I love you Lord’ by saying ‘moo’, and the horse and the pig and so on express their devotion, each in their own way.
These songs are all accompanied by sign language actions and I wonder how many of the mums in the room are Christian believers, and how many just come for the children’s’ entertainment.
At snack time the kids get juice and fruit and the mums get coffee and chocolate biscuits. A friendly mum approaches The New Girl to ask if I live locally. This always leads to me explaining and describing our lifestyle to a surprised and curious person.
“Really? And how often do you move? It must be lovely!”
Then she threw an FAQ at me.
“So, do you think you will get a house one day?”
“ Yes, maybe.” I replied. “We know when Big Sister is school age we’ll have to stay in one area, and maybe get a mooring. But we sometimes think, if you’re going to stay in one place, you know, on a mooring, you might as well be in a house.”
The organiser asks, will I be coming next week for the teddy bear’s picnic? Everyone’s bringing something different so I should put my name next to something on the list. Iced Gems and Tangerines are still available.
“ It really depends where we are moored, I mean how close I am to a station. I’ll have to look at the buses and see if I can get here.”
The Rhyme Time session ends with twinkly music gently praising the love of God underneath the ethereal wafting of a parachute. It’s a beautiful chill out, like the Whirl-y-Gig in Shoreditch Town Hall in 1993.

First Contact

Monday 12th July

The baby sits upright and commandeers our bed with a growling pirate’s “Aaargh!” Then she blows a raspberry.
Last night I lay awake for two hours until one o’clock wasting time worrying. Then I tried self-hypnosis to get to sleep. Then I began making elaborate plans on how to start my on line business, selling MP3’s through my website Worry is a waste of time. It’s better to channel that energy into something constructive.

However, on the whole I’m much more relaxed now that The Doctor is home. I’m still busy all day but I tend to be doing one thing at a time. For example, I’m doing the dishes while The Doctor takes Big Sister for a wee. I’m sweeping the floor while The Doctor encourages Big Sister to build a village with her blocks. The Doctor makes toast for the whole family while I’m changing the baby’s nappy. It seems to me that childcare and housework is a two person job. Multi-tasking is just stressful!

This afternoon the baby is upset, husky voiced, runny nosed and grizzly she looks at me with pleading eyes and murmurs,
The Doctor and I are excited, we think she is saying “Mum” for the first time!
“Oh baby, you feel poorly and you want your mum?” I say gently.
“Mum mum mum,” she replies. Big brown eyes, glassy with tears look up at me. My eyes fill with tears too as I look up at The Doctor’s proud face. We are spellbound by our baby’s first word.
“She said Mum!”
Emotion wells up inside me as this eight month old intrepid adventurer achieves her very first communication with language. We have contact, we are connected, we grow instantly closer to her as she takes one giant leap for baby-kind. We could not be more moved if she had walked on the moon. There is a quantum shift in the family dynamic as our tiny fourth crew member begins to speak our language.

Wednesday 1 September 2010

Things to be seen on the live-aboard roof

Today I took the girls out to see the sights of Broxbourne. The snack van in the meadow supplied us with ice-cream cones – 99 style, beyond this we discovered the old mill restoration project has got the old waterwheel turning once more, up the English country lane to the village green, and the New River, which is not so new. It is 350 years since an Act of Parliament empowered the New River Company to take water from the River Lea and channel it as a water supply for London. We are familiar with this river already as parts of Islington are named after it, although it no longer flows above ground these days in London.

“The history of the River Lea is very much bound up with the history of 1606 an Act was passed to enable the Corporation of the City of London to construct a ‘New River for bringing Water to London from Chadwell and Amwell in Hertfordshire.’ 1609 it was agreed to accept the offer of Hugh Myddelton, a London goldsmith originating from Wales, to carry out the work. His achievement in so doing has ensured that his name will always be associated with the New River; there are roads, schools, and houses named after him along the whole route of the New River, not least Myddelton Road in Ware.”
(The Book of the River Lea Margaret Ashby, Harlow Library, Barracuda Books Ltd 1991)

St Augustine’s Church (1460-2010) is decked in bunting, celebrating it’s 550th Birthday Festival Weekend with “stalls and refreshments”. It is the only Grade 1 listed building in Broxbourne, and it is large for the size and population of the village five hundred years ago. Inside the church the Broxbourne Handbell Ringers are chiming twinkling melodies from an upstairs balcony and the sound resonates around the stone pillars, arches and stained glass.

We walked through an avenue of trees across the lawn beside Churchfields to explore the parade of local mini-shops and search for a local beautician to get my legs waxed some time. (My hairy legs are on tour, comparing and critiquing the beauty services of London and Herts. Bedside manner and technical efficiency varies greatly!)

We “moored up” at the playground and I had to wake Big Sister instructing her it was time to have fun; I supervised play while Baby Sister sat on the grass trying to gobble up dried leaves and twigs.

We set off towards home across Churchfields green, peeping over the edge of the footbridge to look for fish in the new river, back down the lane explaining the name of this spiky plant forming a hedge around the vicarage.
“That’s funny that tree is called holly!” giggles Big Sister. We amble past the waterwheel and snack van and down the hot grassy towpath buzzing with summer heat and cyclists. We pass the woodturning lady, selling her wares from the gazebo beside her red narrowboat and home to the shambolic blue boat with the TV aerial at a jaunty angle on the roof, and the solar panel framed by folded deck chairs and a life saving ring.

We can hear The Doctor’s guitar strumming as we approach our back deck and Big Sister bursts with excitement as the pushchair slows to a homecoming halt,
“Hello Daddy!”

Things to be seen on the live-aboard roof, from bow to stern:

Double pushchair (for sale)
Two tyres (for fenders)
Single pushchair
Central heating header tank (looks like a pigeon box with a little red roof)
Life saving ring
Hexagonal play pen, folded flat
Chimney flu, laid flat for tunnels and low bridges
Another life saving ring
TV arial (laid flat for travelling)
Large solar panel, and;
The Doctor’s favourite tea mug on the hatch over the back door.


Sunday 11th July

The great thing about mooring at Broxbourne is there is a huge leisure centre right by the river navigation. The swimming pool is designed for ‘family fun’ with wave machine, slides, a fountain and a very shallow slope for toddlers to paddle on. The Doctor and the girls walked up the towpath to get a leaflet about opening times and family swim sessions. When they came back Big Sister was first back on board. She stood in the doorway and announced,
“Mummy, we went to the swimming pool and it is GONE! There is just a field there.” This sounded like in toddler confusion she’d got the story wrong, but The Doctor confirmed that it is true! Apparently there is a pool in Cheshunt – where we have just come from.

Instead, Big Sister played with plastic toy fishes and a bucket of water on the back deck under a red sun umbrella. She was just wearing her pants and directing a red water pistol at the yellow balloon hanging from the umbrella. A green narrowboat with a large crew of shirtless lads cruised past and smiled at us. They’re playing rock music really loud and I just made out the lyrics ‘I’m gonna make your ears bleed!’ I should have got Big Sister to do her devils horns hand signal which she accompanies with an enthusiastic, “Yeah, let’s ROCK!” Other ‘baby signing’ that her Dad has taught her include two thumbs up, “Brilliant!” and victory fingers for “Cool!”

We are moored beside a field, long grasses sweep across an expanse of wild and unruly nature towards the elderly thoughtful trees watching over it all in gentle breeze bending silence.

Across the river from our windows we spy on large, detached and modern desirable residences. Their gabled angles and net curtains survey gorgeous gardens and lovely lawns that reach to the river bank and the occasional white GRP cruiser (called things like ‘River Lady’) moored at the end of the garden. I have heard some narrow-boaters refer to these private leisure vessels as Tupperware boats, bathtubs or portapotties. Dr Swan says that he heard they call us narrow-boaters ‘sewer rats’.
These gardens display rose trellis’s, big flowery potted plant tubs, hanging baskets and ten different varieties of ornamental trees.

The river is busy with yellow pedalo’s, rowing boats and mini motorboats pootling about on a halcyon holiday afternoon. They contain families of four, the tattooed, football fan dad at the helm, and these part time day trip captains occasionally bump our hull with a resounding thud. All the dads around here have shaved heads and tattoos. I assume the widespread hair shortage must indicate a testosterone surplus, or a scarcity of zinc.

On the weekdays the water is peopled with a more surreal sight of traditional Hasidic Jewish families, black hats and corkscrew ringlet sideburns that seem so serious whilst “messing about on the river”.

The hunter-gatherer endured a long hot cycle ride to the next town (Hoddesdon) to secure supplies for the family and returned with a treasure trove of the supermarket’s finest produce; chocolate treats and components of a feast fit for the captain’s table, a plentiful pirate’s bounty.

As Broxbourne is a better neighbourhood, our pushchair is free to graze un-tethered, on the towpath grass. We only need to bring it on board when the wine is all drunk, the evening’s deck chairs are folded and the geese have gone to bed.

Amateur boaters run amok

Saturday 10th July

Baby Sister wakes up, surveys her domain and roars with toothy happiness. She sees sunshine water reflections rippling on the tongue and groove wood panelled ceiling of the boat cabin. An all women rowing team accidentally batter the hull with oars as they pass. I peep out of the window in mild indignation. Amateur boaters run amok at Lea Valley Boat Centre.

It’s a hot day. I’m totally busy all morning with kids and housework. The Doctor took the girls out in the afternoon for a walk. I caught up on emails and administration. I printed some pictures for Big Sister’s bedroom. She now wants family photos blu-tacked to the cupboard doors, instead of CBeebies characters. We had a lovely family dinner in the beer garden of The Crown. Both kids were late to bed, there was lots of crying. Adults were in bed by 9.30pm.

The Launderette Equation

There must be a scientific equation for how posh an area is versus how close is the nearest launderette.

  • Posh area (Broxbourne) = no launderette. Zero. (An N of 0.)
  • Cheshunt. Twenty minute walk to the mooring, but twenty five minutes if you have to wait at the level crossing . 
(Local house price) / (commuter train fare to London) x (N) = distance to launderette from mooring.

Further research is required to ascertain N and calculate the distance of the boat from the launderette.

The 4mph Getaway

Friday 9th July

I took Big Sister out to do the recycling, supermarket, laundrette and stopped at the little shop by the station on the way home. I needed to buy tinfoil, but when I picked a packet off the shelf it was empty.
“I keep them back here,” confessed the man behind the counter. I walked to the back of the shop. “They keep getting nicked,” he explained.
“Can I buy one then?”
He produced a packet of tin foil for me and I paid him.
“So, do people nick them for doing drugs?”
“Yeah,” he said, resignedly.
I’ve lived in London ten years but I’ve never had to ask for tinfoil kept behind the counter. Also, in the supermarket in Cheshunt there was a security guard dedicated to the alcohol aisle. Soon after I got home from the shops we united our ropes and thankfully made our escape at 4mph. We began cruising towards a more desirable neighbourhood.

We cruised along in the afternoon as lazy as a clich├ęd simile. We are on the run from double glazed pebble dashed, manicured geometric paved conformity. Running away from prim and trim lawns and roses, porch lights, tidy fencing and neat hedges.

Big trees gently bow to their reflections in the river, willow fingers stroke along our roof, caressing the solar panel and the TV arial. My palm is on the warm metal tiller, I stare ahead at the intense midsummer clear blue sky. Hot hot sun shines down focussed on blanketing life with heat. At the lock The Doctor pushes balance beams painted traditional stark black and white against deep foliage textured greens and blue sky and sparkling, rippling river water. Two swans politely, gracefully drift aside out of my cruising course.

Boat travelling instils in me a great satisfaction. When I travel I’ve got everything with me, I am secure in the knowledge that I have my family, my kitchen, my clothes, my books, everything is here with me, neatly contained and chugging along. I know that I haven’t forgotten anything. I bring this neat bundle of my life, with the engine throbbing quietly through water wakes and geese conferences, past leafy dribbles of dozing trees that drunkenly lean over the cut, and make way for our bow pressing through the water. Here on the Lee the canal debris is just plant life, not beer cans, like in central London. I admire the perfect un-rippled symmetry of a tree reflection.

That night we debated metaphors versus similes. The Doctor said,
“I think similes stick out like a sore thumb.” We were discussing writing on the back deck during one of our wine and geese evenings. We enjoy fromorgies of fine cheese, blind wine tasting in a Pepsi Challenge style, cruising through beautiful Hertfordshire in hot summer sunshine with two perfect children, soft bundles of purity learning about life in little innocent steps. Tonight The Doctor and I drank red wine and sat in deck chairs and watched the stars come out one by one.
“I can see four!”
“That first one must be a planet, it’s so bright!”
The Doctor reads a science book about the possibility of the multiverse being a reality. In one universe I am a boat-wife. It is scientifically probable that in many universes I am many different sorts of wife.

The Inside-Out Living Room

8th July

Both children slept through the night, but we were woken at the break of dawn by a gaggle of geese honking into a crescendo, as unrelenting as an Islington car alarm.

We’ve moved the boat from Waltham Abbey to Cheshunt, a short journey of only one hour including one lock. The Doctor went to London to his office and to our post box to collect the post. The girls and I went to the launderette in suburban Cheshunt. There are red brick semi-detached houses with prim rose gardens, gravelled drives and double glazed porches in a soulless and sinister echo of Everytown, England. It’s quiet here. Too quiet. Not peaceful, just still and eerie. After a twenty-five minute walk the launderette is an oasis to me in the silent suburban unreality. I have mastered a technique of carrying two loads of washing and two kids, just using a rucksack and a double pushchair. The Doctor is impressed with my efficiency.

Cheshunt. The headquarters of Tesco. The cut is right next to the station which is brilliant for a fast train to London. Windmill Lane is a bit chav’s and kebab shops; not so charming, but the river Lee navigation on Cheshunt’s eastern edge meanders past lakes and exceptional natural beauty. From our back deck we watch swans, geese and the occasional heron.

Now we’re moored at Cheshunt we have caught up with Single Boat Mum and her friends. They are moored five minutes up the towpath above the lock on the offside. The heat wave continues and green grasses burst alive all over the place as we stroll up the summer towpath to find Single Mum’s boat. Her and the three boats she is travelling with have moored together above the lock beside a lake and created a deck-chaired chill-out area among the woodland on the river bank. It’s a communal outdoor living room; coffee table, fruit bowl, and a mantel piece style of wooden clock is surreal at the foot of a tree, just as if Lewis Carroll had put it there. It’s a wild and private garden. We drink tonic water and fruit juice. The three children enjoy fruity finger foods and get messy. It’s fun to talk to Single Mum about boating and being a boat mum, and Cheshunt and moving moorings, commuting and travelling, babies and things that we have in common. I know boaters and I know mums but someone who is doing both is rare.