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comedy of errors, before calm – 31st July and 1st Aug 2019

Ryan steering the boat through a canal somewhere between Great Bedwyn and Hungerford

Written back when we had adventures in August 2019. Remember that? It’s been a busy time since then, all things told. Also inbetween then and now, the COVID pandemic has pretty much changed everything. You’d think this would mean I’d have plenty of time to sit and do this, but working in Comms for a Hospice has kept me super-busy and I’ve been focusing my creative efforts on the alchemy which is my jewellery making project and trying to get that going as a little online side-enterprise. I have therefore rather neglected my little blog. I do regret this, because I love the therapeutic process of writing and also knowing that I’ll have these ‘nuggets’ to look back on at a future time (Confession: this blog is as much, if not more, for myself as for anyone else).

So in recompense, I have spent some time this evening selecting the photos I had in mind when I originally wrote the post. Please forgive me the delay.. Let’s make a deal that I’ll have polished off this belated adventure for you by the end of November, at the very latest? Okay..that’s a deal then between one Time Being and another: “from my past self to your future self” (this is a reference from ‘For the Time Being’ by Ruth Ozeki which I’m listening to at the moment on Audible. It’s brilliant and I highly recommend it, especially as its also read by her, which makes the biggest difference).

Oh and thanks to a certain long-time pal of mine for providing hot chocolate and much needed encouragement – you know who you are x


We are now sat on the roof of the boat on the Avon, next to Bridge 71 after Kintbury. I’m writing to catch up on the last two days. Ryan’s tinkering around on his tiny guitar: he brought his diddy one with us, rather than a normal grown-up sized one, because of packing capacity issues. But I think he (and his calloused fingers) are now regretting that choice. Despite that, we couldn’t be in a more idyllic spot.

Bright pink flowers of the river bank seen through the round port hole

There are a couple of ducks up ahead, bright pink flowers poking up from the reeds on the river bank, a couple of pigeons cooing in the tree at 11 o’clock, the odd plop of a surfacing fish… and not a peep from the lady ‘nomad’ who has set up camp the other side of the grass-carpeted bridge.

Evening view of river with my flowery trousers, shoes, laptop and headlight at the bottom of shot, and the river stretching out ahead with pink flowers to the left of a grassy bank

She’s 54 and apparently she is walking the country’s canal routes. Last year she did Portugal to Spain and before that did England Coast to Coast. She’s been a nomad for 10 years, since things got a bit “sketchy” and she decided a change was in order. Everything she owns is in her backpack and she doesn’t even have “women issues” to worry about now, due to her age. I learnt all this in about 30 seconds flat, as we used our fairly insubstantial combined weight together, to heft a stubborn paddle back into place an hour ago, after a fully accessible leisure boat came through.

So she’s just down there, 100 meters away, but you wouldn’t know it. The odd cyclist has drifted by since we’ve been here. But other than that, it’s just us, the yellow corn meadow on one side and the (very talkative) sheep on the other:

“I wonder what they have to chat about” floated Ryan when we moored up.

Ryan, happy and showered, sat with a beer in our mooring spot this evening

We are sat on the roof with Corona’s (NOTE FROM MY CURRENT SELF: the only kind we used to know about) and the umami-Japanese -rice- snacks Auntie Chris left with us. She’d said: “Do you remember; Grandma always used to have these?” and I did. Turns out that they are surprisingly good dipped in taramasalata (an odd craving for half way through a boat journey but surprisingly available in the helpfully sign-posted Great Bedwyn village store). Ryan’s going to “rustle up” some dinner in a bit. Life is pretty damn good.

Pretty pink flowers in tendrils to the right of the shot and the long green grass of the river bank behind

Today has been a lovely day. I woke up at 5am (nature calls!) and peaked out of the bow window to spy the early morning mist. It was swirling, slowly, hypnotically, off the still water, surrounded by the blueish light you only get first thing, before day breaks across the sky.

Behind a neighbouring boat, dark dew-dripping trees obscured four tall church spires. It’s too cold and too blue to be up. I snuggled back into the warmth of Ryan and the surprisingly brilliant blow-up (and sprung?!) bed we borrowed from his Mum.

Misty haze above the river in front of a white picket bridge, with a narrow boat moored to the right and the four spires of church behind some trees, beyond

We were meant to get up at 8am, but snoozed until 9. We had, after all, had an exciting trip out into Hungerford town the previous night and the John O’Gaunt, which had been recommended to us by some fellow boaters at our final incident of Wednesday 31st of July. More about this day later. Not as chilled.

Not so surprisingly, they were also there when we walked in. The foursome were on their way back to Newbury with their hired narrow boat and on this second meeting recommended the pie and the sausages. Not ones to be influenced (!), Ryan (who loves a steak pie but isn’t keen on kidneys) had the fish and chips (“best mushy peas and tartar sauce I think I’ve ever had”) and I had the seared tuna with samphire (I’ve loved the frondy stuff ever since I ate it with the girls in Whitstable), mixed mushrooms and new potatoes (“the side bits are amazing but the tuna’s a bit chewy, like its maybe a bit over-cooked“). Ryan told me the next morning that the waitress was behind me when I said this…so I’m not sharing anything new.

Tow path update: Ryan is now off the boat opening a tin of butter beans with a screw driver and a hammer. We forgot to bring a tin opener. We did quite well with bringing along minimal kitchen bits and most things we need to survive. We are also now the proud owners of four mugs – double our starting line up – thanks to Jo and Ellie who luckily bought us some as houseboat warming gift, they can come again). Glasses are less plentiful. After we made it through the Caen Hill flight, Jo and Ryan had their prosecco in those little glass jars you get Gu salted caramel cheese cake in. We have two bowls which are big and multi-purpose. And we don’t have a can opener, as aforementioned. Or a bottle opener, but that’s okay because all Ryan needs to pop a cap off a beverage is another bottle with a another top on it, or a cigarette lighter. Handy.

Reeds framed by one of the boat's wooden square side windows

So here we are now, at the end of today. The middle parts involved: porridge for breakfast with butter and brown sugar (I feel like this was a rediscovery of something Grandma used to make – bit of an inter-generational Easby-theme going on today); a late-ish start; a journey through Hungerford – picking up my Aunt & Uncle for a bit; and then onto Kintbury where we did all the ‘boat-jobs’….. changing toilets, filling up with water, doing bins and recycling, putting grease in the stern gland – it’s goopy, but I now know how to do this with the help of a silver fish-knife – cleaning the dirt from the seam around the engine hatch etc.

It’s true, I may be in danger of becoming a proper boater.

Boat moored up at Kintbury, where we stopped for lunch and 'boat-jobs' with the road bridge behind a narrow boat, before we moored up behind it.

Just after Hungerford, the heads of Auntie Chris and Dorsan (he tells me I’m not allowed to call him “Uncle” any more!) had popped up like meerkats over Dunn Mill Bridge. They duly became the first official family members to step-aboard our new home.

Auntie Chris, Dorsan and Ryan at the stern - taken from the bow

As is ever the Easby-way, Auntie C furnished us with bread and camembert, biscuits and a tangerine each. We gave them the (supremely short but rather detailed) guided tour and had a natter and a cuppa to wash down the biscuits she brought, before taking advantage of an empty lock and heading on through one pound, with them aboard.

Heading down through the lock on our aqua-marine boat with new crew!

A pound, it turns out, is the section of river between one lock and the next. Dobs (Uncle) did some driving – or “steering”, as corrected by Auntie C – knowledge imparted thanks to cousin, John. We had a jolly old time worthy of a Famous Five narrative (without the mystery but with added photos) before parting ways. Ryan and I then carried on our merry way as they walked hand in hand, back the way we had come, to the car park with it’s (excessively low) entry bar (which Auntie C will no doubt enjoy telling you about if you ever get to meet her and ask).

Rare 'family photo' of Ryan and me on the bank-side and Auntie C and Dobs on the other, in the bow of our lovely blue boat (from point of view of camera on the towpath)

That was about the sum of our tribulations, today. Ryan even got to sit on the front of the boat for the first time, whilst I took over the ‘steering’. I’m getting more confident: today I even took us through a bridge and past another wide-beam in quick succession. Which is an improvement from yesterday when we had a mini-tiff (I got the hump) after I got rather close to a wall and he took over without saying that was what he was doing.

To be fair, that was the least of our worries the previous day.

Wednesday 31st July started at a funny angle. Literally. We woke up and the boat was on the wonk. (Sorry in advance but there are no photos from this day – I think batteries had run out, both the physical ones and our mental ones!) .

Before dealing with that (fairly minor) issue (so we thought) of being on the wonk, we had breakfast. My first outing of Grandma-Easby-style butter and brown sugar porridge. Ryan then duly took me through the minutiae of what needs to happen before we leave: check the propeller for damage or obstructions via the weed hatch, turn the stern gland until you see grease drooling out of the turny-thing in the engine bay, keys in the ignition, engine on (wait a bit until the glow plugs warm up), twist them round the rest of the way and start her up (second time lucky. First time we didn’t wait for the glow plugs). Then you knock out the hench mooring pins which have been holding the boat to the bank, with a massive Fred Flintstone style mallet. A couple of fully-weighted knocks and they come loose at the bow (front) and stern (back) end. You then tap the smaller one holding the springer-rope in the middle – wiggle them side to side, give them a good yank… hop onto the boat gunnels before it gets too far away from the muddy bank. And off you go…

Or not.

Not, happens, when your boat has taken on a jaunty angle since the evening before. In this scenario – as was our Wednesday morning – it will not physically be possible to “off you go”, because you have become riverbank-beached in the night.

So… first you try the barge pole technique. The barge pole is about 9 foot long and has a diameter of about 8cm. You attempt to push the boat away from the bank with all your might (although you have to be careful; Auntie C told us today that she fell in once on a trip in Wales, doing exactly this). Suffice it to say that my weary arm, leg and core muscles (which feel like they could be becoming as callused on the inside as Ryan’s hands are on the outside) were not up for it. We didn’t shift even one inch.

Next option: try also shoving the boat from the bank, with a person at each end: Ryan with the gang plank at the other. You huff and you puff, but you cannot blow that little boat down the river (work with me here).

Because you have now simultaneously lost all hope and self-respect, you ask a passing boater – who has emerged from a 60 foot widebeam with a huge wheel house, moored a couple of boats down from you, with it’s bum stuck into the middle of the river (now we know why) – if she has any tips. She says to try “popping” it with the gang plank. Ryan monkey-jumps onto the tow path buoyed by this idea, despite the bruising on his feet caused by going barefoot on the steel of the back deck on ‘deluge day’ as he tip-toed to see the bow through the rain.

Slowly (very slowly) but surely (eternal optimists that we are) he has some success at levering us off the gravelly river bed. It works well, to a point, and now our nose is jaunting out into the river. Our backside, however, is still stubbornly wedged. He continues the levering, whilst I ‘help’ by pushing us out with the barge pole. (This has zero impact).

Eventually he gets back on board and declares that he’s going to try and clear some of the silt using the engine and propeller. We do this for a while and it seems to help. Energy depleted and humiliation setting in (the huge-wheelhouse-60ft-boat-lady has passed us several times now, back and forth between the mooring facilities and her boat telling us a new riverbank-beaching story each time), we decide to try and power out of there in high gear.

It’s easy to underestimate the power of your engine and the force of your backwash in such a scenario, but behind Ryan’s determined-not-to-be-defeated-face, I helplessly watched the chaos unfold. Sudden, but also, in slow motion. Exactly like you imagine you might get when you type ‘canal-boat disasters’ into YouTube. The narrowboat moored behind us springs out at a 45 degree angle. Ping. One mooring pin gone. Ping. Middle mooring pin gone. Splosh. Lovely textured metal gang plant gone.

“Ryan – the other boat!” I yell

“Shit. Shit!! Shitt!!!”

Quick as a flash our boat is in neutral again and Ryan is thigh-deep in the river (in jeans) making his way towards the lady whose face is panic striken/pissed off that her stern is now almost half way to the opposite bank.

“Pass me the boat hook!”

I haul myself onto the roof scrabbling my toes up the side, in a move which is becoming more familiar (if never more elegant), and thrust him the boat hook (having had seemingly no purpose up until this point – the boat-hook has now made it’s value known). Somehow he manages to fish out both her ropes, pull her back in, bash back-in her mooring pins whilst checking she is with someone who will be able to get them out again after his Thor-like strike, and retrieve her gang plank. All in the space of 5 minutes. All whilst apologising profusely, in such a gentleman-like way, that it becomes impossible for her to berate him.

As Ryan is now thigh-deep IN the river, he figures he might as well try and just push our vessel off from that vantage point. With the added motivation of mortifying embarrassment (“I turned around and couldn’t believe it was actually happening”) he sums up his last bit of strength. It’s a monumental herculean effort and somehow he manages to push our back end off the treacherous and gravelly riverbed (not to be trusted).

She floats out as if she’s wondering what we’ve been waiting for. Ryan gollum-clambers back on and sits – moist and a little bit broken (but grinning and relieved) at the tiller, and we put-put away from the scene, as if none of it had ever happened.

We stop at the next lock for a cup of recovery tea and a rich tea biscuit or two. On the plus side, Ryan now has “river-clothes” and we definitely know the quickest way to solve the issue of being stuck on the bank. Mainly moor up better in the first place, with the boat’s arse jutting out into the river, full diva mode.

Wednesday had more than just a ‘bit of riverbank beaching’ in store for us though. When we got to Cobbler’s lock, Ryan tied the clever hitch knot we’ve trying to make a habit of, and came to help me with the gates…

(Aside: we still don’t know for sure which bit of the lock is the paddle and which bit is the gate – there are the smaller plug like bits which you use the windlass’ to wind up and then there are the wooden arm-like bits; unhelpfully EVERYONE seems to have a different opinion on which bit is the ‘paddle’ and which bit is the ‘gate’ which isn’t helping us, but anyway…)

… he was helping me to push back the big wooden arm-like bit (gate?). As the boat descended, with the water, in the lock, we realised that he had tied that fabulous knot (which is so great because it only gets tighter as you apply more tension), without enough slack for the boat to reach the bottom. This is not a good scenario, something will break, be pulled off or dropped down… and the lock at Cobbler’s Cottage looked a little on the decrepit side and like it couldn’t cope with an above average amount of abuse. Abort!

“Shut the gates/paddles/paddles/gates!”

Ryan closed his down. I looked befuddled at mine, which wouldn’t shift and had these unusually big cogs which had distracted me from the little catch thing you’re meant to pull up in order to ease the gates/paddles/paddles/gates down.

Luckily Ryan’s successful abort slowed everything down and our little boat home bobbed up again as water gushed in to the rescue from the gate above, just enough to losen the warrior knot. Disaster #2 averted.

Finally (because everything always comes in threes) we pulled up next to a narrow boat at Hungerford Marsh Lock (No. 72), the last one before we are due to tuck into our end-of-day destination: the church at Hungerford. We learn from the couples aboard the other boat, that a weed-pile (basically a dreadlock-bundle of reeds plus roots) has got stuck in the paddle/gates/gates/paddles and we aren’t currently able to get through. Figures.

They are on their way to Newbury for Saturday and proceeded to share their pub recommendations with us. We reciprocate the sharing with a couple of Coronas and a G&T. They tell us that they have been there for an hour and a half and that several C&RT vans had already been and gone. The weed-pile was well and truly wedged and the latest van-arrival was a chap in a dry suit who was doing his best to sort it by wading in up-to his armpits with a massive rake-type implement.

We (together with another C&RT man in a company t-shirt) watch them from the boat roof for an hour, as we sip our drinks and skim over the surface of our stories. Never expect a river-bourne journey to go according to your daily plan.

T-shirt C&RT man eventually came over to tell us the bad news. The long and the short of it is that we have two options. Either way they need to drain the pound we are in, to get the weed-pile out before it ends up in the lock’s chamber (which can cause untold damage).

Options. Either we reverse back to Cobbler’s Lock and stay afloat in that previous pound. Or we stay put and let the boats sit on the riverbed until midnight, when the pound would be refilled from “right the way up at Crofton”. I imagined this wasn’t going to go down too well at easy-to-get-beached Great Bedwyn, when the not-a-lot-of-water there, trickles away to rescue -the boats down here…

Ryan was up for reversing: we figure that whatever the delay, it’s not worth the risk of getting stuck on the clay riverbed as the waters of the Avon swirl around us and we wait with baited breath to see if our new home floats or remains stuck to the bottom.

In the end – and possibly with a stroke of luck – the River Gods decided that they had thrown enough at us for one Wednesday at the end of July: Mr Drysuit comes over and says that he reckons they can gently let through two more scant locks of water, so we and our narrow boat neighbours can squeeze through, avoiding the likely mishap that reversing or pound-draining will almost definitely entail, and carry on.

And so we made it through by a hair’s breadth and limp into Hungerford for the prettiest over-night stop yet. Right next to a pretty Bath-brick church (apparently its the most easterly church of all Bath’s bricks). Its bells welcomed us in (7.30pm ringing practice?) and we had settled in for the night, with our back end sticking, diva-like, out into the cut.

Panaroamic view before Hungerford with spires to the right and the lock to the left
One Comment Post a comment
  1. Barry Moss #

    What a delight to find this !

    There must be a book at least to come xxx

    October 27, 2020

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