July 26, 2010

Captain’s Log day 8: Lost and found

Filed under: Canal,family,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 12:28 pm

The crew and I meant to spend the day at Hampton Court Palace, but as we were waiting for the ticket office to open I took a phone call that changed my plans.

My younger daughter, ever the Baby of the family, though she is 18, has given me some of the worst moments of my life (lovely creature though she is), and she started very early.  When she was less than a year old she took up that toddler trick I had heard about but never before seen – holding her breath until she went rigid, turned blue and shook as if convulsing, and then holding her breath some more, until her eyes rolled back in her head, and she passed out.

By the time she was two or three I was in danger of being reported to the Social Services for gross neglect.  Onlookers who witnessed this performance (I am telling you, it is scary) shouted Do something!  Call an ambulance!  How can you just sit there?  And I would answer casually, Oh don’t worry, she’ll come round in a minute or two.

The first time she did it, however, I thought she was dead.   I thought something like that today.

I spent much of the day on the telephone.  Everyone agreed there was nothing I could do by returning immediately to Oxford, and in any case the boat would have to be got back to its home mooring somehow.  The crew were very sympathetic, and when they came back from their day at the palace, they urged me to do whatever I thought best, and they would help in any way they could.

By evening the situation was more stable, no one was dead, and it was quite clear that nothing could be gained, for the time being at least, by turning the boat around and heading back.  In fact, after I had discussed the alternatives with the Baby’s father, we agreed that the best plan would be for me to get the boat to London as soon as possible.  There I would be able to catch a fast train to Oxford.

Day 8 statistics: 0 locks and 0 miles, except for the many miles I paced.

July 16, 2010

Captain’s Log Day 7: Palace to palace

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 1:18 pm

Pangolin stayed moored up by the Eton playing fields on the sixth day of our cruise; the Bursar gained an extra £6 mooring fee, the crew spent the day at Windsor Palace, and I got a much needed rest and a day alone.

The following morning the journey downstream from Windsor was uneventful.  We passed miles of parkland with signs warning us not to stop, because it was Crown property. I had brief fantasies of defying the notices just to see if the SAS would parachute in, jump out of the bushes, and leap over the barbed wire fences to arrest us, but, happily, I soon became distracted by a bird I had not seen before.  I abandoned thoughts of high treason and took photographs instead. 

A new bird

A new bird

After much puzzling I identified this as an Egyptian Goose, listed in my bird book as a rare species (though I now know it to be plentiful along a small stretch of the Thames), introduced to this country as an ornamental bird in the 18th century and escaped to the wild.  Though it is not widespread – unlike those pesky Canadian geese – it was officially declared anser non gratus in 2009.  Actually it was declared a “pest”, but I think the Latin sounds less hurtful, don’t you?  They are rather pretty creatures, and they can’t help being foreign, poor things.

By now the crew and I have become very used to Thames locks, which seemed quite daunting when we first joined the river.  These locks are much wider, longer, and often deeper than those on the Oxford Canal (which take the 6.5 feet wide narrow boats sometimes with barely an inch to spare).  One Thames lockkeeper told me his lock could theoretically hold three narrowboats across and three deep; he’s never yet had an opportunity to prove the theory, but he seemed very hopeful that one day nine might arrive all at once and give him his chance.

On the whole, the locks are filled with more usual river going craft, and every one of them, even the canoes, seemed to go faster than Pangolin.  Everywhere we encountered the “gin palaces” I had been warned about, great fibre glass tubs bobbing in the water.  Their captains always look just a wee bit nervous when my 15 tonne (give or take a tonne or two), 62 foot boat enters the lock behind them.  I know they are nervous, so by the time I pull up to the edge of the lock, my goal is to be crawling along at less than half a mile per hour, though I only have good steerage at much faster speeds.  Fast is good, if you want to make nifty turns.  Fast is not good if you don’t want to run over gin palaces.  Where it gets tricky is when you need to make a nifty turn so as not to run over a gin palace…

Approaching each lock, we come to the weir first.  There is usually a lot of discussion and consultation of guidebook and binoculars amongst the crew, but generally speaking, when I am driving, I think a good rule of thumb is to steer away from the big DANGER signs. 

Should I go to the left or to the right?

Should I go to the left or to the right?

Once in the lock the crew lassoes a bollard, front and back, and gently lets the rope go slack as the lockkeeper presses the buttons that work the paddles.  There’s a good deal of chit chat as the lock empties.  Below Oxford all the Thames locks are electric and manned, so the boaters can concentrate on their ropes and their chat.  Where are you from? Where are you headed?  Where will you stop tonight? 

Mr and Mrs Crew are in their element, but I have to unlearn 30+ years of British reserve.  Who knew that though you mustn’t talk at breakfast in an Oxford college, and never ever under any circumstances short of terrorist atrocity in a train carriage, lock chit chat is required?

It’s her boat, the crew says, pointing at me. She lives on it, near Oxford.  The crew hands everyone a business card printed with a picture of their own boat back home, and I nod and offer a mute wave and hope my driving looks almost like that of someone who might reasonably be left in charge of something that would definitely squash them if I twitched the throttle in the wrong direction.

As the boats drop to the river’s next level, the crew release the ropes, the gates open, everyone says good bye to each other, and thank you to the lockkeeper, and off we all go, often to meet again at the next lock, a couple of miles further down the river.

Approaching the last lock of the day

Approaching the last lock of the day

Hampton Court Palace from the river

Hampton Court Palace from the river

We reached Hampton Court late afternoon and once again were lucky in our mooring.  I stood on the roof of the boat and took this photograph of the palace gates.

The view from our mooring

The view from our mooring

And this, when I clambered over the fence.

Hampton Court Palace

Hampton Court Palace

I don’t think we could have got a lot closer.

Day 7 statistics: Windsor to Hampton Court: 19 large river miles and 8 wide locks

July 8, 2010

Captain’s log Day 5 Henley-on-Thames to Windsor

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 10:27 am

We set off in mist and heavy rain, and the emotional boaty weather was not a lot better.  Mr Crew was at the helm (narrowboats are driven from the back) and I was up front with the binoculars – not concentrating on what was ahead, as I probably ought to have been, but on ducks instead. 

Within moments Mr Crew was shouting at me to summon his wife, and I called back to say she was in the loo. As that only produced louder shouts from the helm, I put down the binoculars and went back to see what the problem was.

I was met only with an angry, screaming insistence that Mr Crew wanted to talk to his wife, so I retreated to my lookout spot on the bow.

Moments later, Mrs Crew emerged agitated from the loo to find out what all the shouting was about, spoke to her husband, and raced forward to ask me for the binoculars (which was apparently what Mr Crew wanted all along).  Alas, by then I was so flustered by all the angry screaming that I could not remember where I had put them.

The binoculars were eventually found, consulted, and Mr Crew altered our course so that the boat didn’t run into a riverly dead end, which I quite agreed would have been very inconvenient. 

The Duchess at the bow, leaving Henley

The morning’s event had three effects:

1. I silently surrendered the binoculars to the helm, though they had always been meant for birdwatching, and never for navigation.  I hate conflict a lot more than I love ducks.

2. Mr and Mrs Crew began to treat me more gently, as if I were some semi-crazed imbecile, who mustn’t be upset, or who knows what she might do: losing the binoculars was probably only the beginning.

3. After briefly contemplating abandoning ship (but where would I go?  the boat is my home) I began to feel liberated.  I considered Mr Crew’s behaviour so rude, so unreasonable, and so improper in a guest that I felt absolved from many ordinary host rules, and especially from paying attention to anything he said.

Mrs Crew particularly encouraged me in the last.  She quietly assured me that the secret of a happy marriage was “Yes, Dear” and I might like to practice it, in case I ever got married again.

Without saying anything to me, she also banned Mr Crew from the helm when I was driving (bless her) and stood with me while I practised ignoring his instructions shouted from the front.  I got a lot of extra practise ignoring him whenever I was driving into a lock (Hurry up! hurry up! left! right! neutral! reverse! forward! right! left! neutral! reverse! hurry up! hurry up! hurry up!)

Yes, Dear, Mrs Crew whispered in my ear.

At Windsor the river was suddenly once again extraordinarily busy, with row boats and cruise boats everywhere, and whole flotillas of eager schoolboys slicing the water with their sculls.  Mr Crew was driving, and he skilfully dodged the river traffic, swung the boat around, and pulled us up alongside the playing fields of Eton, where we moored, paying the Bursar a mere trifle for the privilege.

We tied onto the bank with the boat facing upstream

We tied onto the bank with the boat facing upstream

For the first time I saw Mr Crew really happy.  I had promised they would want to stop at Windsor, and sad, crazed person that I am, I wasn’t wrong, just this once.  We had a mooring with a view of the castle overlooking the town, and Mr Crew was enchanted by the dozens of swans who flocked our boat, demanding bread. When I explained that the queen officially owns all the swans in the whole country he roared with laughter and took pictures of swan butts in the air.  What, he asked, would Her Majesty think of that?

One of Mr sCrew'<br /> s photos

One of Mr Crew's photos

The crew and I drank gin and tonics on the Eton playing field.  I don’t think our boaty war was either won or lost, but for the time being peace reigned.

Day 5 statistics: Henley Bridge to Windsor Bridge.  21 large river miles and 8 wide river locks.

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