November 21, 2011

My new urban life

Filed under: Canal,Oxford,Politics and history — Duchess @ 10:17 pm

Agenda 21 mooring sign

Way back last summer I started to blog about how I had a new mooring.

“These days,” I wrote, “when the British Waterways inspector strides down the towpath in formal dark trousers and white short-sleeved shirt with navy epaulettes (which I guess someone in HR thought made their employees look proper nautical), I neither duck out of sight nor race out to offer him coffee and biscuits, my former alternating strategies for dealing with Pangolin’s semi-legal mooring status.  Now I don’t care when I see him tapping my license number into his hand-held electronic thingy.  He can whistle for a biscuit.”

It seemed a promising enough start, though a little unkind, and not, in fact, even true, strictly speaking.  I wouldn’t have denied the BW guy a biscuit, if I had expected him.

I’ve seen Richard (we are on a first name basis now I know how many sugars he takes) only once since I moved the boat nine miles south to just inside the Oxford city limits.  It was one of the few hot days of the summer, and I was trying to turn the clumps of nettles, brambles and ivy that line the towpath into a garden.  Every time I stuck my spade in the ground it hit rubble.

I was resting on my shovel and surveying the mound of rocks I had uncovered when Richard appeared with his epaulettes and electronics.  I glanced nervously at the rocks.  The BW rules say that I am not to alter the mooring in any way, and my biscuit tin was empty.

“I do 15 miles,” Richard replied, in response to my surprise at seeing him this far south – I thought it would be someone else’s patch — then, nodding at my boat, “I heard you moved down to Agenda 21.”  He glanced at the mound of rocks and added reassuringly, “You’ve got to make the environment friendly, don’t you?  Well, friendly to yourself, at the end of the day.”  Then he looked only half expectant before he said cheerio and headed down the towpath.  Three more miles to Oxford centre and the end of his shift.

That’s a simple enough story to relate, but I got exhausted thinking I had to explain the Byzantine rules of how British Waterways allocates moorings (in theory and in practice), how I went from squatter to semi-legal to legal, and what on earth is Agenda 21.

My exhaustion lasted all summer and well into the fall, but now I think I can explain it just one, two, three:

1. In the Old Days, when we were all Socialists, there were waiting lists.  I came to England in 1979; there were waiting lists for a telephone, for a cooker, for a car.  Thirty-some years later waiting lists were long since abandoned for almost everything, except moorings and medicine.  I think they just forgot about moorings.

2. As soon as Pangolin changed hands, her moorings were forfeit. I went on the waiting list and squatted sanguinely; it probably would have been my turn eventually if some wise guy civil servant hadn’t spent too much time on eBay getting bright ideas: as we are all Capitalists now, why shouldn’t the government throw out the lists and auction moorings on the internet instead?

3.  Meanwhile, I made a deal with Purple-Haired Emma to sublet her mooring while she went off cruising.  Subletting is not allowed, but “berth sitting for short periods” is, which Emma and I decided was much the same thing. I was well into my second year of the “short period” when the Agenda 21 mooring came up for auction. I probably could have carried on for another decade or two plying inspectors with biscuits, but I never knew when Emma would want her spot back, and anyway, I am mostly naturally law-abiding.  After four and a half years, I really wanted my own space. As is the way with auctions, I bid a little more than my absolute top price.

Which just leaves me to explain Agenda 21, an action plan that came out of the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio.  Right around the time of the summit, some developers wanted to buy the Oxford boat yards, throw out all the boaters, fill in the basin and build flats.  There was a great big fight that went on for almost a decade.

In the end the boat yards did close and the flats got built, but the boaters weren’t evicted: a long stretch of residential moorings was allowed along the canal, from the centre of Oxford to the Ring Road on the edge of the city.  The moorings were designated Agenda 21, in honour of the summit’s by then nearly forgotten plan for sustainable living. Ever after, anyone joining these moorings had to agree to “respect and take up” 10 “aspirations” and “abide by” another 6 “guidelines”.  (I’ve copied them below.)

Despite a lamentable failure to embrace the subjunctive, the original drafters of these aspirations and guidelines meant well, though I am not sure they were a lot more careful of their science than they were of their grammar.  Diesel engines and coal fires, almost universal fittings on canal boats, are not environmentally friendly.

Another ten years on, a good crop of nettles growing up the side of the boat and a clandestine electricity feed seem the most obvious mark of an Agenda 21 boater.

Pangolin has neither! (though I plead guilty to the whopping great diesel engine and the coal fire).  Nevertheless, I am willing to do my best toward the aspirations and the guidelines:  I haven’t recently threatened anyone with violence or persecution, or ever thrown ashes in the canal, and I stand ready to respect any vole or Interested Scientist who should happen by.

In the meantime I grow flowers and feed the birds.  As the BW guy said, You’ve got to make the environment friendly to yourself, at the end of the day.
The Aspirations:

Energy and natural resources are used efficiently.
Pollution is limited to levels which a natural system can cope with.
Waste is minimised.
The diversity of nature is valued and protected.
Local distinctiveness and diversity are valued and protected.
Health is promoted by clean, safe and pleasant environments.
People live without fear of personal violence and persecution.
All sections of the community are empowered to participate in decision-making.
A wide range of living styles is accepted.
The existence of environmentally sensitive areas such as vole habitats and the Sites of Special Scientific Interest are respected.

The Guidelines:

There are no site-specific services (e.g. mains electricity, water, phone lines, post boxes
There is no towpath lighting.
Be aware of generator use.  We adhere to the British Waterways regulations and in addition prefer to use solar and wind power where appropriate.
We undertake not to put harmful waste in the canal (i.e. engine oil, ashes).  All waste is disposed of appropriately.
We endeavour to share knowledge and skills for environmentally conscious living (i.e. awareness of waste disposal, biodegradable detergent, etc).
We will continue to meet and discuss relevant issues for our community in an open forum.

May 3, 2011

Warning: contains scenes of nudity

Filed under: A long way from home,BBC radio addiction,family,misc — Duchess @ 9:08 pm

I have been away — that is, I have been away from England, from my boaty home, and from my own four foot wide, lumpy, boaty bed.

I left in late March, when the crocuses had already almost gone by, the daffodils were in glorious bloom, and even the odd tulip had risked opening to the young sun. I flew across the Atlantic and a few months backwards into a late winter that still lingered when it was almost May and time to think about heading home again.

In five weeks I slept in seven beds.

In Washington DC I was promoted to the guest bedroom.  My father, 86 and frail, insisted on carrying my suitcase up the stairs to a part of his home I suspect he rarely visits. The room was full of ailing houseplants and a large sealed box labelled “Open Immediately”, an unfulfilled spring bulb best intention of my stepmother (too young to be my biological mother) who breezed in after work a couple of hours later. The next morning when I awoke and scanned myopically the back garden, I thought, I must ask Cynthia about that lovely white ground cover that has bloomed overnight.

A few days later I moved on to New York where I slept in a newly designated guest suite, the former teenage occupant, now college graduate, having been finally, firmly ousted, but not soon enough that his mattress could be left on the street with the rest of his garbage. His mother apologised as we squeezed past the old mattress propped up against the wall outside his room: the city’s bed bug epidemic means that getting rid of any old bedding, however innocent it might be, is almost impossible.

But I wasn’t there to discuss infestations. My friend was celebrating the launch of her third book of poetry, The Kangaroo Girl

After the book party, where I air-kissed a slew of people I had barely seen in thirty years, and then a glorious afternoon at MOMA, I flew out of New York in a snow storm that made me miss my connecting flight to Seattle.  Eating shrimp in an airport bar in Philadelphia, I watched a chilly opening game of the baseball season, and couldn’t help noting, on all my accompanying electronics, the lovely UK weather.

When I finally got to Seattle I crashed on a blow up bed in my grandbaby’s room (my timing was bad and the baby had gone to Las Vegas). Every 20 minutes or so, there was a loud electronic beep. I prowled around all night long, disconnecting every possible device, but the beep was relentless. When I asked my son in the morning he said he thought it had something to do with their former cable TV and internet providers, but since they were former, they had no interest in fixing it. He shrugged as he added that it didn’t seem to bother the baby.

It’s my opinion that they have doomed my grandson to a lifetime of unemployment, since he has been conditioned to sleep through electronic alarms. I, on the other hand, woke every time the wretched thing went off.

The next times I slept in Seattle I had the sofa in the living room I shared with their dog. His noises weren’t electronic, but nonetheless effective. Apparently a West Highland Terrier can murder sleep as effectively as any of his countrymen.

Otherwise, to see my grandson, I travelled back and forth by car and ferry from Whidbey Island, where I slept in the barely converted garage of the Lawyer Sis. I like the soft bed and the cold room. I like the door opening on to spongy grass and brambles, the brackish lake, the beach houses and the Sound beyond.  The night I arrived the septic tank backed up and, since all flushes were in vain, just after dawn I squatted naked by the door and hoped I was startling only the local rabbits.

Almost a hundred miles, and another ferry, north is the island house my mother shares with her husband Jerry. There I can choose between a bed in a sleeping loft or a bed in the rental apartment. I usually choose the rental, though the walls are thin and my bed is painfully close to the shower in the main house and I wake every morning to ardent squeegeeing.

My seventh bed was unexpected.  Mother and Jerry bought a condo on the mainland, and the Lawyer Sis and I drove from Whidbey to celebrate the closing. After dinner, the Oldies went home to the island, and the Lawyer Sis and I stayed over at the condo. The packaging of the brand new queen size memory foam mattress, purchased earlier that evening, promised the “ultimate sleep experience”.  As ever I was grateful for the subtlety of English grammar, and hoped that it would not be quite the same as experiencing the ultimate sleep.

Whatever (as the children and the optimists say), the Lawyer Sis, seven years my junior, risked the mattress.  She’s got a chronic bad back and needed the foam.  I occupied the less comfortable, but potentially safer, single bed in the condo’s guestroom and office.   We both survived the night.

A couple of days later I was on a plane again, and my eighth bed was an economy seat home. 

Other than being away for the whole of the warmest UK April on record, and present for the coldest Seattle one, I think I timed my trip rather well.  I got a cheap ticket because I flew back in the middle of a Bank Holiday weekend, and missed the Royal Wedding (though British Airways at Seatac flew, as it were, the patriotic flag).  

The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge

In Seattle they have the new nude-y scanners (the ones where the security guy gets to see under your clothes).  Just to make it extra fun (and presumably so your breasts look extra pert) you have to put your elbows in the air and your thumbs on top of your head.

I mentioned that I recently had had a flare up of a shoulder problem, and would they mind diagnosing it while they were checking me out for weapons of mass destruction, because an MRI is jolly hard to get on the National Health Service?  But they only looked puzzled and said I could have a PAT DOWN if I preferred.

I was tucked up safely, my first night back in my boaty bed when, jetlagged and sleepless, in the early hours I turned on the BBC World Service to hear that the USA’s most wanted man had been “killed and captured” (though I was awake enough to wonder if there was any irony in the BBC’s inversion of the more conventional phrase “captured and killed”).

Then, though it was not my first thought, sometime as the day dawned, I admit I was glad that I had flown in hours earlier.  You think a middle-aged lady might find it inconvenient to pose for a naked scan with her thumbs on her head?

I’m betting you ain’t seen nothing yet.

March 21, 2011


Filed under: BBC radio addiction,family,misc,This is not a mommy blog — Duchess @ 9:52 pm

My third child, who invariably begins all our phone conversations with the words, Mother!  It’s your favourite son! called a couple of weeks ago to congratulate me on my new mooring (of which more later) and to prepare me for his appearance as the Chevalier Danceny in the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses.

My son is finishing his final year in drama school, a time when all young aspiring actors hope to find an agent.  To that end the school puts on a series of public performances to give its actors exposure.

Just a Parental Advisory Warning about the performance, said my son, On account of nudity.

My nudity, he added, just so I was clear.

I hesitated a moment and then asked, Are you (pause) decent?

I have a cushion, he replied, his voice rising cheerfully to confirm the helpfulness of soft furnishings.

His father and I debated as we booked our seats.  The website wanted to put us in the front row. Eventually, however, we managed to get tickets for a discreet half dozen or so rows back.

My son did not have the leading role – most of the characters are women – but his was the second most important male part, with a critical plot element, since he kills the leading man in a sword fight.   I thought, well, any agents around will remember him – he’s the bare bottomed one, handy with his épée.

Before the sword fight, he makes love to the leading man’s lover.

In the end, for reasons of artistic integrity (and public decency, no doubt) the director abandoned the cushion idea in favour of breeches, and since his parents were going to be in the audience, my son had permission to hitch his breeches higher than usual as he rose from his lady love.

Nevertheless, even from row i we had a pretty good view of his bare bottom.

His father and younger sister disliked the play, but I found it interesting and disturbing, despite clumsy anachronisms.  Even a weak 20th century adaptation didn’t obscure the point of the original text:  sex was all about tactics and power.  Love mostly interfered with sex, and no one lived happily ever after.

On the drive home we watched the moon rise above the horizon, wonderfully large and glowing red.  I remarked to my daughter in the back seat that I had heard this was the closest to the earth the moon had visited in 19 years – exactly her whole life.  I guess I was too distracted with my new baby in March 1992 to notice the last perigee.

The Crow reminded me of that grown up word (and I instantly mentally replied with apogee).  Brits are astonishingly ignorant about the most basic science, and though BBC radio did tell me the moon would be nearest, the p word never crossed their lips.

March 7, 2011

And after only a summer dies the swan

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 1:53 pm

Our swan news, three months on, has wrangled its way into the local press (and into that dodgiest of all media, local radio) so, since I promised not to take three months (and did exactly that), I guess I had better, finally, tell the story.

First I should warn you that one of the many things my ex-husband held against me was my discursive story-telling style. He was always looking at his watch, fidgeting, and finally demanding, Get on with it.

You might feel the same, but I’ll just say to you what I told him: I can’t help it; it’s the way I tell stories, even when it’s about swans.

A dead cygnet hangs in the trees sixty feet high on the side of Bunkers Hill, just where the road bends sharply and crosses first the Cherwell River and then the South Oxford Canal. I can just see the cygnet from my boat, though only with my binoculars, and because I know what I am looking for.

What surprised me most from the beginning was how white he looked in death, so close, after all, to growing up. On the water I saw him mostly grey, the ugly duckling from the fairy tale, his swan future barely promised in those new and extravagantly white feathers. I guess human teenagers are the same – you don’t quite notice when they’ve grown up either.

This cygnet came late and unexpected into the world.

Last year I wrote about our local swan wars – how our long standing resident Bugsy and his Missus had been ousted by Brutus, and how Brutus finally departed, leaving Mrs Bugsy calling mournfully for her mate, night after night, until finally the pair were reunited, amidst much rejoicing down the pub.

If we celebrated with a little too much of the Rock of Gibraltar’s best beer who could blame us? We – and the swans – had lost a whole brood of cygnets to marauding minks the year before.

But it was not long until Bugsy, in his dotage, had a new challenger, and after a while we stopped seeing Bugsy at all, and saw instead, Scar Face, a skittish young swan with a deep wound in his beak. More and more often he arrived with the perfidious Mrs Bugsy by his side.

At first we boycotted Scar Face as we had Brutus, but when he and Mrs Bugsy banged on our windows together, and together begged for bread, we were not sure what to do.

Down the pub it was finally agreed that if Mrs Bugsy accepted him, so should we.

When I saw them necking – that elegant swan intertwining that precedes mating – I meant to write a post about Mrs Bugsy and her new toy boy. I was going to call it, If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.

(I am not, by the way, responsible for any of these swan names; and I am not really sure who is — sometimes rival names are used until one comes to be agreed — in an attempt to rehabilitate Scar Face one boat insisted on calling him Beaky, but the rest of us were not fooled.)

For months Scar Face built elaborate nests for Mrs Bugsy. They begged together at boat windows, Mrs Bugsy graciously expecting bounty and throwing back her neck to receive it, Scar Face hissing and darting and gobbling the bread, then lifting his neck to hiss again.

You can’t blame him! said the Grumpy Mechanic, certain that Scar Face’s injuries were sinister. It’s a human who cut his beak. Probably an axe attack! He hates humans! Why wouldn’t he?

April passed and then May. The swans sat for hours on their nests, but we knew the nests were empty, because at night the swans still swam together. A swan pair with eggs never leaves the nest unattended.

At the pub someone said someone else had called the Swan Authorities to ask how come Scar Face and Mrs Bugs kept making nests but never made babies. Given all the hankypanky on the canal, it was not an unreasonable question.

A month or two later all the men in the pub agreed that the Swan Authorities’ assessment was probably right: Scar Face was firing blanks.

“Firing blanks” is the pub report. I don’t have a clear idea about what the Swan Authorities actually said. In fact, I would doubt entirely the existence of Swan Authorities, except that they apparently added that his beak injury was not on their database, and they would need to look into it. And since it really is true that all swans in the UK belong to the queen, no doubt a large number of very deserving young scientists are employed on my taxes to keep track of the Her Majesty’s birds, and perhaps those scientists might be willing, on a casual basis and when more than usually pressed, to cast judgment on the sexual prowess of their charges.

Whatever (as my children, and all of the rest of you, may be inclined to say), Mrs Bugsy and Scar Face were unexpectedly (to us, at least) delivered of a single chick, in July last year, when most swan babies were already if not coming into adolescence, at least pretty big kids.

I was unreasonably delighted, but also unreasonably anxious. Our cygnet was such a late baby, and an only child too. I watched him grow, and worried. If either Scar Face or Mrs Bugsy appeared at my window without their baby I shouted at them. You’ve left him? What are you thinking? I had not forgotten the mink who ate all the babies the year before, even if they had.

Day by day he grew. When he was a big gangly teenager I thought he was safe.

I watched the flying lessons. I always thought the suggestion of flying lessons was anthropomorphic rubbish. Birds fly, right? That’s what they do. What’s to learn? But really, this teenage swan had flying lessons, just the way you might teach your child to drive. The two grown up swans ran along the canal, making a great racket, pumping their feet and flapping their wings and finally rising up into the air.

The cygnet followed behind them, also racing along the canal, pumping his feet and flapping his wings, and then crying, because he didn’t know how to get in the air, and he was left behind. With unflagging patience his mother and father circled back, rejoined him on the canal and showed him once more.

Over and over the cygnet ran and flapped and couldn’t get into the air, and cried, until finally, one day he rose above the canal and flew, just a few feet at first, and then higher and higher.

Was it because he was born so late, and learned so late what could hurt him? By the end of November, when he finally flew, the trees were bare and treacherous with no leaves to wave him away. Didn’t Nature warn him about the change of seasons? Or maybe our sweet cygnet was just stupid. Almost as soon as he was in the air he flew straight into a leafless branch and broke his neck.

And so the cygnet has hung these three months until the Mystery of the Hanging Swan appeared on the news. Radio Oxford despatched its team to the canal and interviewed the Grumpy Mechanic, among others.

Tell us what these swans mean to you, urged Phil, the breakfast radio presenter. They are very much a part of the local community, aren’t they? How does it feel seeing the dead swan hang fron the tree, every day?


The swan family in July.  You can see the slash on Scar Face's beak.

The swan family in July.  Scar Face is on the right, and if you click on the picture for a larger view you can see the slash in his beak.

Our teenage cygnet, a month or two before he learned to fly.

I didn’t take a picture of our cygnet dead in the tree, because it seemed too much like prying, but if you want to see it it is on the BBC website here.

January 20, 2011

The return of the non native

Filed under: A long way from home,Back story,misc,Village life — Duchess @ 12:57 pm

Last week I spent the evening at a dinner party in the village where I used to live. When I first saw it almost 28 years ago one Saturday afternoon in early April, I thought it must be the prettiest village in England. My husband and I, with toddler and infant in tow, were house hunting.

We knocked on a door with a For Sale sign outside.

A middle aged woman answered and hesitated a moment when we asked to look around. Hearing the television in the background, we offered to come back another time. Worse than arriving with no appointment, we had forgotten it was Grand National Saturday.

Never mind! My father always said it was a cruel race, the woman declared, opening the door wide enough for us to come in. Turn off the tele! she shouted. The noise stopped suddenly, young people scattered, and we were led into the house.

My main impression of Hedges was of a home full of laundry. Our guide heaved baskets from every surface as we were led from room to room. She apologised as she went.

I’ve got seven children, she announced, tossing away another basket of clothes so that we could inspect the cooker. Never mind! Sorry!

Bill wanted a son, she explained. She shifted another load of laundry. Sorry! But we kept having daughters, one after another. Five girls. Never mind! Then, when Daniel came, we thought we’d have one more try, to see if Daniel could have a brother.

And as she moved one last basket, she introduced us to her youngest daughter. Sorry!

I suspect I bought Hedges mainly because of the laundry and the seven children. It did not seem possible that their house could be insufficient for my needs.

My dinner companions last week were some of my first friends in the village. We reminisced a bit, traded stories about the disgraced headmaster of the village school, the disgraced landlord of the village pub, the disgraced vicar of the parish church – amongst us we could vouch for the downfall of almost every British institution.

And then, though three quarters of my audience long knew the story, for the benefit of the relative newcomers I was urged to tell again about how the village shop and post office was stormed by armed robbers, such a thing never having been heard of before or since.

It happened only a fortnight after I moved into Hedges, and the very next morning I was described in the Oxford Times as a “sharp-eyed Buckland villager”. I thought it sounded a lot like being called an Alert Peasant.

The headline was, Have-a-Go Hero Foils Armed Robbers. The sharp-eyed villager was, of course, a mere bit player; the hero who had a go was my neighbour, the shopkeeper.

My story was this:

Earlier in the century Hedges had been a draper’s shop; behind it was the bake house, next door on one side was the brewery and on the other side Summerside Stores, which sold general provisions, fresh bread and local milk, but got most of its revenue – and held most of its ready cash – from serving as the village post office. Like Hedges, the other shops were now private homes, and by the time I arrived, Summerside Stores was all that was left of the commercial centre.

My kitchen window looked straight at the shop door. I watched as a car pulled up in front and several young men got out. I idly noticed that they didn’t really look like village people (from my 14 days’ experience) and when they emerged in more than an ordinary hurry, jumped into their car, and drove away, I memorised their number plate.

A moment later my neighbour, the shopkeeper, appeared at his door with blood dripping from his forehead. Instead of handing over the cash, he fought the robbers for their gun (only an air gun – this is a Cotswold village, not NYC) and because it was frankly more useful as a blunt instrument, they hit him over the head with it and ran away.

My neighbour followed them to the door, turned the key in the lock, and had the presence of mind to switch the Open sign to Closed.

I ran out of my house and pounded on the shop window. From inside he indicated with urgent gestures that he was busy, they were closed, and I should go away. In return I shouted and gestured that I had the baddies’ number plate. Eventually, still dripping blood, he opened the door and let me in.

My dinner party host interrupted to remind me that his wife had arrived only a few minutes later.

Please might I have a pint of milk? She asked formally. Brits are always formal in the face of obvious mayhem.

No! We’re shut! snarled the bloody shopkeeper.

Now, Peter, his wife demurred, We can’t stay shut forever, can we?

The dinner party host roared with laughter. He didn’t want me to forget his favourite part of the story. She sold the pint! She sold the pint! He laughed again and then looked to me to continue.

The next day, I said, the police came and took my evidence. They were obviously sceptical of both my methods and motives, and repeatedly questioned me, asking very carefully, Did you write down the number? Evidence not on paper, it seemed, was barely evidence at all; nevertheless, the car, abandoned in the next village, was confirmed to be the one used in the raid.

What puzzled the police almost as much as my extraordinary ability to recall 3 letters and 4 digits was why I had memorised them at all. I admitted that I hadn’t seen anything except three men going into the shop and then going out again, quickly.

Finally I said, I’m an American. I am a very irritable and suspicious person. I memorize number plates all the time. The police wrote that down solemnly, showed me their notes, and asked me to sign them.

Their inquiries ground on. I don’t think anyone was ever arrested or charged. The car turned out to be stolen.

Some months later, my neighbours attended the annual ceremony in London for Postmasters and Mistresses who had been robbed during the year. They proudly showed off their medals and certificates of commendation.

As for me, I settled into village life and was never again called on to exercise my sharp villager eyes

The following year a man knocked at my door, showed me an ID, and intimated that he understood that I had done the Royal Mail a service some time ago and therefore the Royal Mail would like to show its appreciation. He apologised that it had taken so long, but as he thought I could appreciate, the Royal Mail were quite busy delivering post. Would it be convenient if he returned the following Wednesday afternoon?

At the appointed hour a large Rover car arrived to pick me up. There was a sheet of blue paper towel in the wheel well on the passenger’s side – the sort of thing you find on doctors’ examination tables – so that my shoes never had to touch any bit of floor that other shoes had touched.

The man drove me in silence to Swindon, where I received a private tour of the local sorting office, and then was offered tea, two bourbon cream biscuits, and a cheque for £30.

British readers will easily imagine the elegant pretensions of a chauffeur driven Rover car in the early 80s, and they will smile ironically at its Swindon destination (because everyone always does smile in just that way when they think of Swindon). They will also, of course, be quite clear that bourbon cream biscuits contain neither bourbon nor cream.

I always meant to buy a letter opener with the money, but I haven’t yet got around to it.

December 20, 2010

Okay, fine, as long as I don’t have to play the Wife of Bath

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 2:39 pm

The intense cold that descended mid November let up a week or so ago, and the layer of ice on the canal thinned enough to make navigation possible. The towpath rumour that Narrowboat Helene of Troy would be barging through on Sunday turned out to be true, though the temperature still hovered around freezing: shards of ice, cut and scattered in the narrowboat’s wake, were gently frozen in place by last Monday morning, and the canal had a sharp, dangerous look.

Nevertheless, the temperature was gradually rising, and Dusty, the fuel boat, announced he was on his way. He reached me on Wednesday morning, topped up my diesel, and tossed 200kg of coal onto my roof. He apologised for being out of propane, but didn’t think he would get any more before mid January.

I said now I had diesel, I was thinking of making a run for water – which meant driving the boat forward about a quarter of a mile, filling up, and reversing back to the mooring. Dusty advised me to go for it. The Met Office was predicting the thaw would be short-lived.

I rarely move the boat on my own, but there was no one I could ask for help on a bitterly cold mid-week December day. My boaty neighbours were all at work; I had offers of help for the next weekend, but the forecasters promised more hard frost by then. My water tanks were nearly drained, and I didn’t think I could take a chance on moving later.

So all by myself I drove up to the water point (which just between you and me and the internet is not exactly a legal water point), tapped my hose into the (not exactly legal) supply, and tanked up. On this short journey I was surprised by how much bother just a little ice could be. Hitting the propeller, icy chunks sent me in quite the wrong direction, and at one point I had to kill the engine, undress to my shirt sleeves and plunge my arm into canal water almost to the shoulder to clear ice from the propeller blades.

When the tanks were full, I untied the ropes and set the boat in reverse. The whole business took about three hours, and just after lunch time I was back on my mooring, without having crashed into anyone’s boat – no small feat, since I have almost no steering in reverse, and there is a sharp bend to negotiate.

By the next morning three of my neighbours – all of whom had been out when I moved the boat – remarked, I hear you got water yesterday. If I had crashed any boats, everyone would have known.

The canal stayed navigable for another day or two. One boat moved north and two more headed south, following Dusty. The swan pair visited, begging for bread, but by Friday a new layer of ice meant they could no longer swim to my kitchen window.

It started snowing early Saturday morning and didn’t stop until after dark. In the evening, with snow higher than my mid-calf boots, I trudged up to the pub where many of my neighbours had already gathered. The Landlord said, I hear you got water the other day.

The three divorced men from the marina, each living on their separate boats, were all there. I hadn’t seen the saddest one for months; his only son died in a car crash a year or so ago, and then he and his wife didn’t feel the same about things any more, at least not about each other, and finally he thought he would just get a boat. He cried when he told me the story, and then, because I cried too, he bought me a drink. I’m sorry, he said, wiping his eyes.

The butcher who delivers meat to the pub got his van stuck heading out of the car park and came in to order dinner. Scanning the menu on the blackboard, and negotiating rescue over his phone, he confessed he fancied something vegetarian.

The young archaeologists from the squatting boat by the bridge arrived, brushing off snow, and told the story of how they’d helped push a stranded ambulance back onto the road.

Two Polish young women driving a mini wandered in. They had been hired to cater a wedding nearby, but their car got stuck on the hill by the pub. Oh, the wedding’s off, the girls replied to our muttered concern. We just want to get back to Oxford.

The conversation turned to the Morris Dancing troupe who phoned to cancel their appearance because of the snow. One of the locals tore down their grainy, home-printed poster advertising the gig.

She pointed out one of the key dancers pictured on the left of the poster. She is a big girl, fair enough, my boating friend said. Not been well. For months she thought she had some kind of stomach problem.

Irritable Bowel What’s It, another boater offered.

That’s it, my friend said. So she kept drinking and dancing, dancing and drinking, pints and pints, because she didn’t know. After a while, the doctors said it must be gallstones. And one night she went to the Emergency Room with really bad gall stones and came home with a baby boy.

She was a big girl, fair enough, everyone in the pub agreed. She didn’t know.

After I left, just as the pub was about to close, I’m told a child of about 10 or 11 wandered in and asked the Landlord if he did rooms; her father was waiting in a car in the snow outside. The Landlord refused.

Anyway, shrugged Mrs Landlord the next day, they weren’t still there on Sunday morning.

December 6, 2010

After the feast

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 2:27 pm

Our familiar wind, which usually blows west, damp and mild, across the Atlantic, has swung to the north and east and brings instead arctic cold and Siberian snow. My boat makes odd creaking noises as the gusts rock it against the ice. The canal is frozen.

It is ten days since any boat moved through the lock. Along the towpath we trade weather forecasts and calculations of how long our supplies will last: the man on the squatting boat behind me says he reckons his water and diesel won’t last past tomorrow, and I say my coal supplies will run out next week and I am worried about my water. I think I have another 20 days at least of diesel (to generate electricity), but others are running low already. We are all wondering whether Dusty, the fuel and coal boat, will be able to get through before Christmas.

The days slip away while much of my energy is taken up with keeping the birds fed and myself warm: before breakfast I throw a coat over my PJs and refill the feeders each morning. The birds eat constantly until half past three when the light is already fading. In the spring they wantonly toss the seed about, but now they leave nothing even for the rats that come out at dusk. I’m lonely when the birds are gone.

Every third day I haul a 20kg bag of coal from the roof of the boat to the bow. I fill the scuttle, shovel coal into the fire, riddle the ashes, empty the pan, begin again, many times each day. I don’t, whatever else I neglect, let the fire go out overnight.

The weather turned cold a few days before Thanksgiving and my potential guests began phoning me: Did you really mean to invite us to your boat? And, Just how cold is it on that boat?

I promised them they wouldn’t be cold, and they were not – before dinner I had to throw open the windows – the combination of cooking, the coal fire, and five people on board sent us way beyond cosy.

My cooking facilities are limited and the menu was simple. For the first time in years I didn’t make pumpkin pie, which is always challenging anyway. There used to be a deli in Oxford that stocked Libby’s tinned pumpkin, in strictly limited quantities, a few weeks before Thanksgiving. They kept it behind the counter, and when you asked for it a suspicious sales clerk would inquire, Have you booked? Only if your name was on her list would she hand over the tin. It cost a small fortune.

This year, I made pecan pie instead, which Brits, with their sweet teeth, prefer anyway. Cornbread is another challenge, but after no success at any supermarket within 10 miles of Oxford, I thought of checking a health food store where I found a packet labelled “maize meal”, and duly baked it into something passable, if a little dry.

I cooked the turkey on the barbeque. While I was planning my menu I idly wondered if you could spatchcock a turkey, typed the thought into Google, and found the internet full of advice. My guests were impressed when I told them I had done the spatchcocking (removing the backbone and breaking the rib cage) all by myself. Nevertheless, they (and I) were unconvinced that the turkey (4 and a bit kilograms) could be done in only an hour, so I cooked it another thirty minutes. It was overdone, but at least we all felt confident we wouldn’t wake up with salmonella.

Besides turkey, cornbread, and pecan pie I served sausage and bread stuffing, mashed potatoes, brussel sprouts and grated sweet potatoes with sage and garlic butter. With gravy from stock and drippings to cover it all, of course. I forgot to put the turkey liver in the gravy, so I enjoyed that all by myself, panfried in olive oil, a few days later.

With Thanksgiving over, I lurch, already overfed, toward Christmas. The festivities began Saturday with the Boaters’ Christmas Dinner at the pub, a jolly event overshadowed by sad swan news, of which more in a future post (not 3 months from now, I promise!).

September 18, 2010

Captain’s Log day 16: Victoria Park to Limehouse, up the tidal Thames to Teddington, and back to Hampton Court

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 1:00 pm

Apologies for leaving my readers stranded by Victoria Park just above Mile End Lock 9 for so long…

I woke feeling both anxious and excited, and for the first time I was eager to set off before the crew were ready; they took a leisurely morning walk while I paced and fretted. Though we had only just over a mile to go, there were three locks to negotiate in quick succession before we reached the end of the Regent’s Canal at Limehouse Basin. We had been warned to be there on time to catch low tide; if we missed it we would have to wait until the next morning to rejoin the river.

I needn’t have worried – even with a delay while we lost steering just after the second lock and had to stop to open the weed hatch and remove half a dozen or more plastic bags wrapped around the propeller, we still arrived an hour or so before low tide, moored temporarily in the marina, and reported to the Limehouse lock keepers.

They casually asked if we were carrying a radio (though they didn’t ask to see it) and disappointed me further by taking no interest in whether I had a license to operate it. I comforted myself by being quite sure that if I hadn’t bothered getting the required certificate, they would have surely demanded to inspect all my paperwork.

It was then almost low tide, but the lock keepers explained we still had several more hours to wait: the water in the lock would need to rise again before any boat, even mine with only a 22 inch draft, could get over the cill.

You’ll go out a little before 4, they said. Watch for the light to turn green just before the lock doors open.

I took a short walk to examine the lock from above, but I spent most of the intervening time studying the navigational notes provided by the London Port Authority, with instructions for negotiating each bridge. There were 29 bridges to pass under before Pangolin would be back on the non tidal river.

I tried to memorize the most important instructions: we would enter the river on a blind bend and I should beware of boats suddenly coming upon us from behind; a flashing white light at Tower Bridge would mean “large vessels in the vicinity” and then I mustn’t go under the central arch. I must steer clear of sloping sides in the arches of Westminster Bridge, and at the Houses of Parliament I should keep to the centre of the river to be outside the exclusion zone on the right, while at Vauxhall Bridge I must on no account stray to the left, near the MI6 (spy) headquarters. Islands should be passed on the left and I must sound my horn again at Kew Bridge. Sixteen pages of instructions.

I studied especially the key to “Signs Displayed at Bridges” and “Sound Signals Specified in Collision Regulations”. Five short blasts on the horn seemed useful to master: “I DO NOT UNDERSTAND YOUR INTENTIONS. Keep clear! I doubt whether you are taking sufficient action to avoid a collision.” That would tell them.

At quarter to four, the light turned green, the wide lock doors opened and we followed one other narrowboat in. Just then, the wind began to gust and rain threatened. The crew and I quickly threw on rain jackets under life jackets as we held our ropes and waited for the lock to empty.

I let the other boat leave the lock first, and then, sounding one long blast of my horn (“I AM ABOUT TO ENTER THE FAIRWAY”), I looked left behind me and turned right onto the river. The instructions had warned me to be ready for the strong up-stream current as soon as we left the shelter of the lock cut. We were immediately rocked by waves washing over the bow, and, in another moment the wake of large ships tossed us even higher. It was immediately clear that I had wasted my time learning the horn signal for: “I AGREE TO BE OVERTAKEN.”

I was glad of Mr Crew at the stern next to me as I drove, and Mrs Crew keeping watch up front.

Double click for larger versions of any image (opens in new window).

Limehouse Lock from above

Limehouse Lock from above


Entering Limehouse Lock

Entering Limehouse Lock


I drove out of the lock while Mr Crew listened for hazards on the VHF radio

I drove out of the lock while Mr Crew listened for hazards on the VHF radio


On the river again.

On the river again.


Almost immediately Tower Bridge was in sight.

Almost immediately Tower Bridge was in sight.


Tower Bridge is very close now.

Tower Bridge is very close now.


Pangolin going under Southwark Bridge*

Pangolin going under Southwark Bridge*


Little boat, big river.* That&#39s Pangolin in the circle.

Little boat, big river.* That's Pangolin inside the circle.


The Millenium Wheel (London Eye) is just ahead, past Hungerford Bridge

The Millenium Wheel (London Eye) is just ahead, past Hungerford Bridge


I loved seeing familiar sights from an unfamiliar place.

I loved seeing familiar sights from an unfamiliar place.


The traffic thinned dramatically after Westminster Bridge.  Mr and Mrs Crew both took pictures, while I remained focussed on driving.

The traffic thinned dramatically after Westminster Bridge. Mr and Mrs Crew both took pictures, while I remained focussed on driving.


Vauxhall Bridge

Vauxhall Bridge


When we passed Battersea Power Station on the south bank we had almost left central London behind.

When we passed Battersea Power Station on the south bank we had almost left central London behind.


It stopped raining and I took off my hat.  Behind us is Battersea Bridge.

It stopped raining and I took off my hat. Behind us is Battersea Bridge.


The bridges are fewer and farther between, but they still mark our progress upstream.  Ahead is Hammersmith Bridge, in west London.

The bridges are fewer and farther between, but they still mark our progress upstream. Ahead is Hammersmith Bridge, in west London.


Just past Kew Bridge is Brentford, where we had left the Thames exactly a week earlier.  We were on our return journey at last.

Just past Kew Bridge is Brentford, where we had left the Thames exactly a week earlier. We were on our return journey at last.

Day 16 statistics: 26.74 miles and 6 locks, made up of 1.13 miles of broad canals, 4 broad locks, 21.11 miles of tidal rivers, 4.5 miles of large rivers and 1 large lock.

(The two photos marked * were taken from the bank.  A couple of days after we made our trip up the tidal Thames we met in Cookham Lock the crew of narrowboat Cassy, who had been doing some sightseeing in London the previous weekend.  If you were the boat going under Tower Bridge last Saturday, they said, we’ve got some pictures for you.)

September 3, 2010

Captain’s log day 15: Paddington to Victoria Park

Filed under: misc — Duchess @ 2:56 pm

I spent the next four days in Oxford, sleeping in my ex-husband’s guest room.   He and I passed long mornings at Starbucks, sitting at an outside table and watching the north Oxford world of aging dons, pregnant women and precocious children go by.  We fretted over cappuccino about our Baby, until she breezed in – all clipped vowels, expensive scent, distracting cleavage and perfect poise – to convince us, almost, that everything was just fine.  

The following Friday it still seemed fine enough for me to take the train back to London where the crew had meanwhile been busy tourists, but they were eager to move on.

Pangolin chugged off late morning.  Turning right out of Paddington Basin, the crew and I left the Grand Union Canal (Paddington Arm) and joined the Regent’s Canal, the link built early 19th century through London to Limehouse and the Thames beyond.

We quickly left Little Venice and almost immediately came to our first tunnel.  According to my guide book, it is 272 yards long, and there is room for only a single boat.  Earlier I had puzzled aloud about how a one way tunnel on the canal might work.

Mr Crew was dismissive of my concern.  There will be traffic lights, of course.

Mr Crew does not know the Brits, or the canals.  I never thought for a moment that there would be a traffic light.

As we got near I shouted to the boat I had seen coming out of the tunnel to ask whether there was anyone following him. 

He shook his head, gesturing above the din of our engines, so I opened the throttle and Pangolin sped ahead, entering the tunnel fast, while I sounded the horn.  I reasoned that my best tactic would be to get through before anyone else had the same idea in the opposite direction.  I switched on the single headlight, but the boat is 62 feet long, and it didn’t shed much light for me, driving from the rear, though I hoped it would, like the horn, warn any other boat of my approach.  The tunnel was very narrow indeed – at one point I almost scraped the side – and terribly dark.  A few minutes later, though it seemed longer to me, when we emerged into sunlight I realised I had forgotten to swap my dark glasses for clear ones.

Soon after the tunnel we passed behind many elegant houses and the Zoological Gardens, then on into shabby chic Kentish Town and Camden.   I’d promised the crew lunch at Camden Market, famous for its food and knock-off designer fashion.  At the lock young people strolled by and offered help with gates, paddles and ropes, all the while grasping plates smelling of Jamaican, Indian, or Indonesian delicacies.  Alas, we found nowhere to moor, and we moved on further and further down the canal, until we all agreed that the market was too far away to walk back.

I am not sure how disappointed the crew were, because Mrs Crew is very good at making the best of things.  Mr Crew cheerfully ate his favourite ham, peanut butter and jelly sandwich and I grumpily polished off a tin of tomatoes, dreaming of sag aloo.

At St Pancras lock I pointed out the splendid Victorian railway station where, in just over a week, the crew would catch the Eurostar train through the Channel Tunnel to Paris.  At King’s Cross I gave up the helm and Mr Crew took us through Islington Tunnel (this one two way, though, again, we didn’t meet another boat) and into our moorings by Victoria Park.

We all went to bed excited.  The next day was the planned climax of the trip, when we would rejoin the Thames and follow the tide upriver, through central London.

Our mooring at Paddington Basin

Our mooring at Paddington Basin - I still cannot quite believe there was no charge for a week at this central London site.


Time to move on.

But all good things come to an end, and it was time to move on.


Paddington Basin - all turn here!

The dead end at Paddington Basin


Give me 40 acres and I'll turn this rig around

Give me 40 acres and I'll turn this rig around


Leaving Little Venice

Leaving Little Venice


Maida Tunnel, looking back

Maida Tunnel, looking back


Approaching Regent's Park

Approaching Regent 's Park


Elegant house

Elegant house


The aviary, designed by Lord Snowdon, brother-in-law to the current queen, was our first sight of the zoo.

The aviary, designed by Lord Snowdon, former brother-in-law to the queen, was our first, and best, sight of the zoo.


We hadn't seen a lock for 27 miles when we got to Hampstead Road. Camden Market was beyond, but there was nowhere to moor

We hadn't seen a lock for 27 miles when we got to the double lock at Hampstead Road. Camden Market was beyond, but there was nowhere to moor, and we carried on, past St Pancras, Islington Tunnel and on to Victoria Park, where we stopped for the night.

August 18, 2010

Captain’s log day 11: London at last

Filed under: Canal,misc — Duchess @ 12:45 pm

The new boaty friends we met on the Grand Union canal were adamant that if we arrived late in the day we would never get a mooring in the city centre.  They advised stopping short (but not too close, they said, because it gets very dodgy); the best plan would be to cruise into London by about 10am.

We ignored the first part of their advice, but luckily awoke none the worse for our dodgy mooring in Alperton.  At least we would follow their counsel and get to the centre bright and early to catch any moorings going, though not so early that no one had yet moved on.

It was only two hours’ cruise, with no locks.  All of England was gripped with World Cup fever.  We had drawn our opening match with the USA a couple of days earlier – but hopes, and flags (not all of them English) still ran high.  I was more excited by this new (to me) approach to London. 

Just before Paddington is an area called “Little Venice”.  Even at 10am there was only one mooring (or perhaps the lazy bones hadn’t yet finished their breakfasts).  I was pretty sure my boat would have slotted into that mooring, but the crew disagreed, so we went on.   I didn’t argue because I always thought Paddington would be a better place to stop – ahead there were seven-day free (of charge) moorings in the middle of the London.

A sharp right turn brought us into Paddington Basin.  The first mooring slot we encountered was tight, but I thought we would fit, and we did, not without a great deal more shouting from Mr Crew; h I thought I had got used to it, the shouting still upset me, thoug, probably because I was more than usually tense: Paddington was where I agreed would leave the crew with the boat.  Before noon I was on the fast train to Oxford.

It had taken us ten days to get from Oxford to London on Pangolin, and I was back in Oxford within the hour.

Day 11 statistics: Alperton to Paddington Basin, 6 miles of broad canals.

Approaching London

Approaching London


Little Venice

Little Venice


The turn into Paddington Basin

The turn into Paddington Basin


Paddington Railway Station

Paddington Railway Station

« Previous PageNext Page »

Freely hosted by Powered by WordPress. Theme by H P Nadig
Close Bitnami banner