Wednesday 27 October 2010

Welcome to Harlow

Saturday 7th August

After experiencing a couple of lengthy train delays at Roydon station, I decided it might be almost as quick to walk to Harlow, to get to the library today. Hunsdon Mead, Hunsdon Mill Lock and Eastwick Mead are the beautiful rural scenery accompanying me on while commuting on foot. Forlorn poppies left over from June have fallen by the wayside as I walk past the grassy expanse of Eastwick Mead. At Parndon Mill a concrete wavy watery sculpture is inscribed with these words,

“1769 The River Stort open to navigation flowing into the Lea and onwards to the Thames, Then out to the sea and so to all the ports of the world.”

A tempting sculpture exhibition is advertised at Parndon Mill, water cascades from leaking top gates of the lock and willows frame grasses and cowslips in the meadows. A wrought iron footbridge by the lock is a pretty sculpture in itself. It twists and turns around chunky flat nuggets of glass imprisoning the frozen imprints of local meadow flowers, wheat, grasses and a piece of chunky chain. This curly work of art was probably forged by fairies. Then, as I leave the Stort towpath ‘Town Centre’ signposts suck me in through a concrete labyrinth of car parks, housing estates and graffitied underpasses. The ultimate destination of my quest is a plethora of grey pedestrianised angular boxes. Who would have thought that heaven and hell could have the same postcode? Harlow New Town was established in 1947 And unlike Roydon it is not in the Domesday book.

“In 1898, Ebenezer Howard outlined his vision of the ‘garden city’ in Tomorrow: a Peaceful Path to Real Reform.... Howard’s prescription for the garden city, as adopted by the Association in 1919, broadly sums up the kind of community that was to be built under the New Towns Act, 1946: ‘...a town designed for healthy living and industry; of a size that makes possible a full measure of social life but not larger; surrounded by a rural belt.’ “ (Harlow: The Story of a New Town, Frederick Gibbertd, Ben Hyde Harvey, Len White and other contributors.)

In Birdcage Walk there is a fish and chip shop and a betting shop. A cafe makes a hopeful attempt at Mediterranean dining by sending a squadron of tables and chairs out to bravely assemble themselves on the pink and grey geometric patterned pavement. The market square before the stall holders arrive is bleak and grey. Pale rectangle windows, placed above pale green panels are surveying a square starved of activity and spirit. The locals trickle through it like the lesser Stort, winding their ways to the employment agency, the ‘casino’ gaming shop, the half price jewellers, and the cheap chain clothes stores. A dismal modern concrete sculpture, titled ‘Vertex’ is the centre piece of the precinct, proudly penned in by a red-brick knee-high wall. It looks desolate, but maybe Harlow Art Trust had a meagre budget when tasked with acquiring a piece for the town centre. The shoe shop’s signs declare that it is ‘here to help you spend less’. I walk past the pound shop, the fast food restaurant and the pawnbrokers. At the top of the high street an eerie carousel slowly spins in a faint hearted attempt to cheer up the two children that sit on it. They circle blankly around and around to the tune of Rolf’s ‘Two Little Boys’. One lost soul stands and stares blankly at the pavement on the approach to the shopping mall – no wait, he’s just waiting for the cash machine. He is a queue. In the mall I notice the surplus of peroxide in the town. There is an unusually high percentage of fake blond hair in this town, scraped back into Essex ponytails. A sultry Wella Woman advert in a hairdressers window is pleading me to join them, “Make the First Move, Go Blonde” she invites me. Do it boat wife. Be one of us.

At lunch time I hid from Harlow in the Harvey centre, which looks like any other indoor shopping mall. On the plus side, while I am depressed by Harlow, I am not afraid of it, the way that I am afraid of suburbia: launderette country.

Tank Girl’s helpline for boatwomen

Friday 6th August

Sometimes I feel depressed, lonely, isolated, and anxious. Mothering books and internet chat forums reassure me that this is normal and nothing to do with being a boater. Sometimes I forget that I can always phone a friend. I phoned Tank Girl, who runs her own body piercing shop and has a three year old daughter: A Mumpreneur in the extreme. It turns out that I only needed to talk to someone and within minutes I feel much better and I’m laughing. She asked me when I last had a conversation with someone in real life (not on the phone) and I admitted it must be a few days, if you don’t include staff at the village shop.
“I like your blog,” she says. “But how on earth do you find the time to write it?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s an addiction I guess. Sometimes I just can’t stop writing. I take a notebook and a biro with me and stop and lean on the pushchair when I need to write something down. Or sometimes you might just find me perched on a lock gate, writing something.” As I go about my business I sometimes stuff a notepad into the hood of the pushchair and keep a pen behind my ear.
“I suppose it’s like me and exercise,” says Tank Girl.
“Yeah,” I agree. “I never know how you find the time to do all that running and spinning and stuff.”
“I just love it! I’m mad I s’pose!” She laughs.

Treat yourself to a bit of Tank Girls’s funky jewellery at

Towpath Talk

Boat Wife is on page 61 of issue 61

Friday 15 October 2010

Little Fluffy Clouds

Thursday 5th August

This is my first whole day away from the children in nine months. It’s supposed to be for writing but I have such a backlog of admin and odd jobs to do that I took my computer to Harlow library and sorted a few things out. On the internet I organised Chloe’s hen night and wedding present, and then I replied to a bunch of emails from nurseries as part of my continuing mission to research childcare and a nursery education. At this stage I did not mention that we roam the waterways like wanton water gypsies, but just mentioned our winter mooring in Angel, Islington. A brief internet search on ‘travellers rights’ confirms that every child is entitled to a nursery education, but in practice it helps if you are based in one area.

Being a writer is a wonderful existence so far. I half jog, half walk to ‘work’ down the beautiful meandering towpath of the navigation. My ‘office’ at the moment is Harlow library. The feeling of satisfaction that I get from typing up my notes, researching and checking facts, editing and rewriting makes me feel whole and completely alive. I know that my soul passionately wants me to write during my short time on this earth, even though my body prioritised my yearning to mate and raise children before the needs of my soul. To get home after a good day’s writing, I catch the last bus to Roydon, which leaves at 4.25pm. By 4.40pm I’m in a cosy corner of the White Hart with my lap top. The barmaid brings a cup of coffee with a miniature foil-wrapped chocolate to my table. The pub is cosy, quiet and quaint. There is a fresh flower in the vase on my table. I type happily for the last half hour of my working day, before striding across the level crossing and up the towpath towards Hunsdon Mead to get home. The only minor drawback is that my current writer’s salary is zero! This will have to change if I’m going to keep raising those children.

This evening we took our deckchairs, dinner and wine down into the field and discussed our family’s options for the future, and little fluffy clouds. The field is good, but we concluded that what is really important is how much sky you can see over the field.
“What were the skies like when you were young?
...the most beautiful skies as a matter of fact....purple and red and yellow, on fire...
You might still see them in the desert.”
(Little Fluffy Clouds, The Orb)

Plastic Tragedy

2nd August

Two of the plastic people have gone overboard. I was on the back deck shaking crumbs off the play mat – I didn’t realise that Iggle Piggle and Upsy Daisy were in there! So not just any plastic people but the leaders of the plastic people. My daughter’s favourite toy is her bag full of miniature plastic characters and her most prized and favourite two are those two Night Garden(TM) friends. We have not yet broken the news to the Tombliboos and MaccaPacca, but my daughter took it really well. It has however, provided us with an opportunity to explain that when a person – plastic or otherwise, falls into the river, they are irretrievable. We try to explain that children must keep back from the edge because if she falls in, she won’t be able to breathe and this will hurt very much.
“Worse than the time you burnt your fingers on the diesel stove. And me and Daddy may not be able to get you out again.”
“But then I could see Upsy Daisy and Iggle Piggle again?” she pipes up, optimistically.
There’s always a silver lining.
We turned the boat at the next lock, and went back to Roydon lock to fill the water tank at the lock cottage. Then we turned again, (there’s just about enough room to wind the boat above the lock) and returned to moor in a different part of Hunsdon Mead. Geese fly in formation overhead. Buttercups and dandelions pepper the field.

Roydon, Domesday 1086

31st July

It is raining in heaven today. Diamante beads glisten on the tangled pink flowers bravely wavering in the breeze outside the bathroom window. This morning I ask myself, is tea making an art or a science? I am thinking about the precision of making The Doctor’s tea, because I don’t drink tea myself. My efficiency as a wife has improved due to recent uninterrupted sleep. I am no longer functioning on emergency power back-up. As an experiment I use a spirit measure to measure two jiggers of milk (that’s two doubles) and use a timer to brew the pot for exactly five minutes.

When Dr Swan was here to visit I told him that we’ve started using jiggers to measure spirits and we’ve even got a wine jigger, to measure a small glass of wine. The idea is to perhaps just have two 125ml glasses a night and to each keep to our respective recommended weekly units limit.
“So, has it reduced your drinking?” asked Dr Swan.
“No,” I replied. “But we’re measuring what we drink now.” I imagine the definition of a hangover incurred in such a measured way would be a “jigger-bug”.
Later, I was trying to describe to Dr Swan your typical bachelor, sketcher boater.
“You know the type, single bloke, lives on board, drinks a lot...”
“Careful!” he smiles, displaying mock affront. It sounds like I’m describing him! “Ah, Dr Swan,” I am quick to clarify. “But these people don’t use jiggers!”

We’re probably running low on water by now, but we are delaying the cruise to the next marina to fill the water tank because we want to stay a little longer in boater’s heaven. To preserve water we have bucket baths. One stands in the bath with half a bucket of warm water and a jug. A person can wash in a surprisingly small amount of water, and it reminds us of when we travelled rural India.

Today I took the children into ‘town’. Roydon has a population of 2,771 (according to Wikipedia). Behind Roydon lock is an extremely informal level crossing providing vehicle access to the lock cottage and pedestrian access to the towpath. There is no electric barrier to be raised, siren sound, or flashing red lights to warn of danger. The railway is accessible to everyone via a white wooden picket kissing gate. The only words of caution are on a simple sign which states the instructions,
‘Stop. Look. Listen. Beware of trains.’ At the risk of overly gilding him with metaphors I will say that The Husband of The Lady of the Lock is a rough diamond with a heart of gold. He has previously offered to open the gate on the far side of the railway for us. I knock on the lock cottage door and he accompanies us across the railway to unlock the vehicle access gate. I cannot fit through the second kissing gate with the double pushchair, and his kindness saves us from going round the long way, via the station. I push the buggy uphill along an un-tarmaced gravelly country lane through fields to the village green, where the shield shaped sign swinging in the breeze reads ‘Roydon, Domesday 1086’. It was first recorded in the Domesday book as Ruindune, later Reidona, c1130, then Reindon in 1204 and Roindon in 1208. (Thanks again, to Wikipedia). Roydon is a bit like the end of the rainbow for us – the epitome of rural beauty and charming village life, because it’s probably the smallest, prettiest place we’ve ever moored. Here, the vicarage is pink and proud, and bravely undefended by holly.

We took the recycling to the top of the hill. There is a black and white photo of The Beatles in the photo library display window at the top of the high street. There is also a charismatic picture of Jimi Hendrix, a print from the original negative.

“Is that Ringo playing drums?” my daughter asked me.
“Yes,” I said with pride that she can recognise and name each Beatle.
“And, have all the Beatles got willies?”
“Yes, darling.”

The cosy pub with the child-friendly beer garden has a wooden swing set that looks as if it’s been handmade by hobbits with no concern for Elf and Safety.

The water level dropped dramatically in twenty minutes today. Our boat was no longer level with the towpath, our ropes were pulled tight, and our mooring pins leaned and strained towards the cut. The Doctor and I wondered what could have happened. Later at Roydon lock I suspected the kind of thing that could cause this. I saw a hire boat waiting to enter the lock from below. (This means people on a narrow boating holiday). The eager lock-wheelers had walked ahead of their boat and were winding up the paddles on the bottom gates, to empty the lock in readiness for their boat.
“You need to shut the other gates!” I pointed out in alarm. The top gates were still open so the whole of the lock pound above could theoretically escape through the open paddles of the bottom gate! They’ll never empty the lock with the top gates still open.
Boaters are divided over whether it is polite to leave lock gates open or shut. If you happen to arrive at a lock and the gates are already open then it saves you time, as you don’t have to moor up and go ashore and open the lock. But shutting the gates saves water, as most locks leak a little, and equally it depends which way you are travelling, whether the open gates speed up or slow down your journey. The Boater’s Handbook (published by BW and The Environment Agency) says,
“Close the gates and lower the paddles before you move on, unless a boat coming from the opposite direction wants to use the lock.”

Friday 8 October 2010

Single Boat Mum

3rd August

I went to visit Single Boat Mum for the evening. Her boating neighbours made us dinner and we all sat out on deck chairs on the towpath to eat from the little wooden coffee table. Their dining view is the golden wheat field, and we discussed field envy. When Single Mum first saw my mead she was suitably impressed, but the wheat field is not bad either. We talked about boaty things, like boaty books, and boating mothers. They explained to me that a “Rodney boater” is waterways slang from Oxford, meaning one who’s boat is more than a bit scruffy. Single Mum has nicknamed her boating neighbour ‘Uncle Rodney’, although his boat is not of the extreme scruffiness they describe. Her other two neighbour’s (and travelling companions) are Rodney’s girlfriend, and BG which stands for ‘Boat Girl’. We discuss parenting on board, and how it might differ from parenting in a house. How on earth did they manage in the old days? I don’t know much about Victorian childcare philosophies, except that ‘children should be seen and not heard’. This must be how the Victorian boat-wife managed to prioritise boat work over entertaining the children. I’ve also read that in the days of working boats, the boats always came first. The faster they could deliver, the faster they got paid.

I said that I wanted to find out more about women and mothers on boats in the past, and they told me to read ‘Ramlin Rose: The Boatwoman's Story’ by Sheila Stewart. She draws on recorded interviews with boatwomen who were born and bred on horse-drawn boats and recounts their experiences as seen through the eyes of an illiterate boatwoman. She describes how school children would jeer at the boater’s children and call them dirty.

“There was dirty boat families, we called ‘em ‘Rodneys’ after them railroad rodneys, vagrans, wot rode rough on rail wagons. Like every other tribe in life we was some and some. Most of us was kept scrubbed regler with Wright’s Coal Tar (soap) and Condey’s Fluid (disinfectant).”

Single Boat Mum and I talked and drank wine until late. Then we had a paranoid discussion about whether it was safe for me to walk home alone late at night. It’s a half an hour walk up the towpath through the fields to my mooring. Our minds are still in London. Realistically the chances of meeting a murderer or rapist on the deserted towpath at 1am in rural Essex are very slim. We laughed about it on her boat, but I took the route home via the high street instead of the fields.