Wednesday, 16 November 2016

Of An Autumn Journey Part 1

P. came to England for his Toussaint break from school. Here we have a week for half-term. There they have a fortnight for remembering their dead. It was a perfect opportunity to risk taking the boat out for a few days. The paint had had a few weeks to harden further and I didn't have much work on, so we upped and went one Friday afternoon in October.  Our first stop was Three Holes.

Over the years this village on the extreme edge of Norfolk has lost many of its amenities. I looked at a house there thirty years ago when the daily had outgrown our tiny cottage. It had a huge garden, with a barn and a workshop, but the house itself didn't fit our needs. It also required far more work than I would have able to undertake. Although I would happily have taken it on as a project, my wife knew I would never complete it (and knew full well I would abandon hope shortly after starting it when it came to things I couldn't fix with gaffer tape and bailing twine). I could see "potential". She could see disaster and rural isolation. She had a point and we didn't buy, but it never stopped me fantasising about what might have been. The village once had a school, a pub and, until recently, a garage. Only a village hall and, possibly, a shop now show any signs of life. The village hall seems to be quite active and regularly has film nights. I would be tempted to try one, but I have allowed a dread of a re-enactment of the village hall scene from "Deliverance" to build in my head. Many years ago I played for a ceilidh here. It is one of two gigs in my memory where I have felt unsafe. Apart from having to run a long lead from the kitchen to the stage in order to locate a socket with an earth connection I had made an error of not putting details of the gig in writing. In those days I worked on the principle of keeping the admin simple and all agreements were made over the telephone or on a handshake. This event encouraged me to consider a more professional route. Towards the end of the ceilidh I announced the last dance, walked it through and we finished at 11.30 as agreed. When we stopped, there was none of the usual activity of people bustling around to collect belongings, clear their glasses and bottles, rearrange the furniture and take their leave of friends. They turned to stand and face the band - that Deliverance moment - and there were none of the smiles customary from a group of people who had enjoyed a night of great fun, excellent music and exhilarating dancing. On the contrary the atmosphere had taken on a sudden coolness loaded with potential aggression. It was a confrontation without any obvious cause and I was confused ... not to mention a little nervous; actually that is British understatement and I was becoming scared to the point of panic as the microseconds passed. The band I had at the time were as sensitive as usual and had swung into shutdown, pack up and get out mode. After a few seconds, which to me seemed more like minutes, my contact came up and our exchange went something like,
 "They are expecting you to play for longer, you need to do another half an hour."
 "We agreed an 11.30 finish."
 "You need to do another half-hour."
 "We agreed an 11.30 finish."
 "You don't understand. You NEED to do another half-hour."
 "I put midnight on the poster and that is what they have paid for and what they are expecting."

 I looked the band, still oblivious as they shut off amps, unplugged leads and started coiling cables, and I looked at the unmoving, unsmiling audience. The post-gig band banter rang out over an Arctic silence.
 "Er, gang, can you plug in and switch on again, please? We need to go on a bit longer ... "

 Since then I have written and sent out contracts for every gig.

 The village shop metamorphosed into a café recently. The strait and cluttered rows of beans, bread and booze were cleared away and, save for a token display unit of essentials to appease villagers and passing strangers, replaced by a miscellany of charity shop tables, chairs, comfortable sofas and coffee tables. The walls were stripped back, many to bare brick, some painted in aspirational colours and an interesting photographic gallery of vintage local scenes replaced life's essentials that had apparently returned insufficient profit for the disproportionate responsibility. I thought the place looked great and told the owner so between mouthfuls of home-made cake and sips of peppermint tea when I visited and discovered the changes a few months ago. She explained how the rebirth was due to have happened over a holiday closure. However, as with many building projects concerning older properties, each step of the process uncovered a hydra-headed monster list of tasks that should have been sorted before. A few weeks of work turned into several months. Five layers of wallpaper was just the beginning of the horror.

I wondered how this new venture would attract more customers than a village shop. It may have been transformed on the inside, but from the outside it still looks like the same old corner shop. Although the road is mildly busy it is not an overly busy through route. Neither is Three Holes at present a must-visit tourist destination unless you feel the need to visit places with weird names - and you could get a two-for-one bargain here with Lakes End being the next village along this shortest route from Wisbech to Littleport. Let's ignore the fact that the road can be closed for several weeks, or even months, each year during the rainy season when the Washes are up. The flooded road necessitates a thirty-mile detour if you get caught out. I have heard of children on the wrong side of the flood at Welney being taken to school in a rowing boat owned by one family from near the Suspension Bridge. An adventure for sure the first couple of times, but it's not a journey I would fancy on a regular basis, specially if I were on the oars. It's not exactly a short distance.

So, this adventurous café project has begun life at a disadvantage and, if it is to realise survival as a business, will undoubtedly be working out how to get the customers in. In another location the place would likely be packed out on a daily basis, specially if the food and service can be got right, but Three Holes ...? I have been back several times, a few times to meet a friend for a slice of cake, a drink and a mardle and this time with P. Unfortunately, every time I've been back since my first visit the café has been closed. How self-destructively English. I really hope they find a way to make a go of it. 

I was delighted to have found space on the public mooring for the first time in ages. Usually there has been at least one other boat there and mooring has usually entailed a precarious balancing act to cast a rope round a post several feet from any foothold.  Think of the balancing posture required for The Crane Kick from the Karate Kid films. Naturally, there being plenty of space to moor, we only needed to be there for half-an-hour before we set off again, because the café was closed. It would take us nearly a couple of hours to get to the next place of refreshment along the Sixteen Foot Drain at Stonea.

The Golden Lion is a friendly pub that has been under the present ownership for a few years now. The first time I went there they were serving exotic meats - kangaroo, zebra and ostrich come to mind, but my memory may be playing tricks. Nowadays they specialise in pies, far more attractive to a couple of vegetarians such as P'n'me. I found out about their sixteen varieties of pies (and choices of pastry crust) when a woman nearly drowned. 

Andy and Christina moved to the Fens from high-powered jobs in the prosperous south. The prospect of a family seemed unlikely through their custom of passing each other in trans-Atlantic aeroplanes heading in opposite directions. So they sold up and moved to the Fens. Six years ago they bought the pub. Six weeks ago they bought the boat. One day the boat broke down on the wrong side of the river near the farm. That day there was a knock at the door at the farmer's house and and his partner was rather taken aback to be confronted by a woman who was sodden from head to toe and dripping on her doorstep. Christina had taken decisive action and leapt into the river to swim across for help, leaving Andy on board with their three year-old daughter. Fen life is good for families. I wasn't around that day, but somehow they got the boat to the farm side of the river and have ended up with a place to moor their boat. Although many, many miles from the pub it was an improvement on their previous improvised mooring under the railway bridge over the Sixteen Foot, which is where P'n'me ended up mooring that night. It wasn't easy either.

Last time I moored up in Stonea there was another boat. I snagged a fishing line I hadn't seen and released an apparently very expensive float into the wild. The young angler hadn't seen me until it was too late and he hadn't heard me either with his earphones attached to whatever music he was playing on his phone. He was very apologetic and so was I. I staked the boat to the bank and we later shared a drink and conversation in the Golden Lion. The bank then was very steep and very slippery, but at least I could get close enough to extend the gangplank. This time, though, I couldn't get near the bank for the reeds that grew out into the river. I was forced to turn round (luckily I knew there was a culvert nearby - where I had found and retrieved that expensive float from where it was caught up in the reeds) and moor half under the railway bridge. Unfortunately the stern end still wouldn't pull in anywhere near the bank, so I was moored jutting out into the water where it narrowed under the bridge. Fortunately I could get just about close enough at the bow end for the gangplank to reach. It still took us well over forty-five minutes to moor up safely though and I was glad P was with me. It would have taken even longer by myself. I was also very glad Andy and I had spent a while talking one day when he had come to do some work on his boat. From that conversation I knew that, somewhere, there was a rope attached to a post which we could use to haul ourselves up the bank. P found it and, with our boat secure we headed in to a delicious pie supper. The accompanying vegetables were perfect.

I had a fitful night's sleep. With the cabin end under the bridge I discovered that goods trains run right through the night. Most goods trains are very long. As a child, living in London, I had a terror of railway bridges and arches. I remember having to run under them, holding my breath, fearing the rumbling train would bring the bridge down on me. I'm not a big fan of going under noisy railway bridges to this day. Sleeping under one was worse. Next morning the wind had picked up. My first manoeuvre was to get the boat off the undredged river bed and back into deeper water without falling in or losing any of the stakes, the club hammer, the gangplank or P. Then I had to reverse back to the culvert so I could turn round again and we could continue on our journey. Reversing boats do not have much directional control so it was a delicate manoeuvre requiring much shunting between reverse and forward gears. The wind did its very best to unravel what advantage I had gained through the bursts of forward gear necessary to correct our heading.

(I started writing this some time ago and haven't had time to finish it yet. It suddenly struck me I didn't have to do the account all in one essay, so I shall rename this part 1 and finish the rest later. Why didn't I think of that before!)


  1. Haha, yes, why didn't you think of it before. After all this is a blog....You can write a little bit every day, can't you?

    1. I'd like to think so, but that is unlikely ever to happen!