Monday, 6 February 2017

Of Level Middles, Rights Of Passage and Bills Of Fair (Part 2)

The Nene-Ouse Navigation Link is part of what is primarily a drainage system known these days as the Middle Level. The Middle Level drainage and navigation functions are administered by a body known as The Middle Level Commissioners. When I lived in a house I received annually a bill from the Commissioners for the services I received in terms of drainage. I think this may have been on account of having a narrow dyke (known everywhere else as a ditch) marking the boundary at the bottom of my back garden. The dyke was overgrown and rarely tended by anyone during the fifteen years I lived there, but the bills kept coming ... at least I assume they kept coming because after a while they were absorbed into council tax bills and it all happened rather less visibly.

I don't have to spend long thinking about the number of houses in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, to realise that drainage money for not actually doing very much probably brings in a tidy annual amount. On top of this farmers and other landowners pay per acre for drainage and they pay again if they want to take the water that has already drained off their land and into the waterways to use it for irrigation. Commissioning must be nice work if you can get it.

The Middle Level Commissioners used to have offices in March (a town in the Fens, not the month ... they do actually have the offices all year round) and they still do, but a few years ago they sold off the old offices by a busy set of traffic lights in the town centre (the building is now The Hippodrome Hotel owned by Wetherspoon's), and borrowed a large sum of money to design and erect a new building next to the river. It is a very nice building as modern buildings go. There are, allegedly, some eighty-plus to ninety-odd miles of navigable waterway on the Middle Level according to the guidebooks, or a hundred according to the MLC website, and it is acknowledged pretty widely that one has to be a certain kind of person to enjoy using them. I count myself in that special breed although a high boredom threshold is a necessity since travelling along most of the wider drains, such as the Sixteen Foot, The Forty Foot and probably even the Twenty Foot (although I haven't yet tried that one out in the boat) is akin to riding those boring bits of train journeys that pass through cuttings with high embankments on either side permitting neither a view of the adjacent countryside nor any kind of mobile phone connection. The reason for this being, of course, that the Fens have lost so much top soil in the centuries since they were drained and used for growing crops that many fields now lie below sea level, below any roads that pass beside them and below the rivers and drains that keep the arable land in a fit condition for arable farming. Water needs to be pumped up into the drains to prevent flooding in some places. Without the drainage work that has been carried out since the middle ages, but most dramatically during the seventeenth century at the behest of successive Dukes of Bedford and under the direction the Dutch engineer Cornelius Vermuyden, the Fens would not have developed into one of the most important and fertile agricultural areas in England.

People tend to be wary of change; history has often shown they have good reason.  Those who for centuries had learned how to live in the Fens, through wild-fowling, fishing, eeling or collecting reed for thatching found their livelihoods greatly diminished as the newly-reclaimed land was being sold off or given in favour to interested parties and vested interests such as the fourteen Adventurers who underwrote the reclamation. These adventurers awarded themselves 43,000 acres, gave 12,000 acres to Charlie Wag (King Charles I) and rented or leased off another 40,000 acres that was expected to cover the costs of the upkeep of the drains. The Fourth Earl of Bedford, Francis Russell, acknowledged that there was an imperative for recompensing people for removing their freedom of movement and their livelihoods. The continued sabotage of drainage works by Fen Tigers must have helped focus his mind; it is unlikely he acted wholly altruistically. He set in place, through an Act of Parliament, the rights of the people to enjoy free passage in perpetuity. This applied to a class of traveller known as the "pleasure boater". Boats engaged in commerce or trade would be required to pay for a license with the exception of those carrying specified goods and raw materials, including pigeon dung! Reading though these details recently has reminded me of the opening spoken section of the Lonnie Donegan song, "The Rock Island Line", one of my favourite songs as a child (and one of John Lennon's too if the stories of him playing the record so many times he wore it out, getting through several copies, are true). In The Rock Island Line the engineer (train driver) has to declare what goods he is carrying. He claims, "I got all livestock, I got all livestock, I got all livestock," but as he passes the toll point and picks up speed he calls back, "I fooled you. I fooled you. I got pig iron!" pig iron being subject to a toll whereas the livestock weren't. I wonder how many commercial vessels on the Fens carried cargo that went undeclared?

The Middle Level Commissioners were set up as an independent body by another Act of Parliament in the nineteenth century. This had the effect of separating them from the Bedford Level Corporation that had been established two centuries previously . The rights of people to use their boats through the navigable part of the drains has remained. It was ever so from Roman times, enshrined in Magna Carta and confirmed in all subsequent Acts from the drainage programmes of the seventeenth century onwards.

This, however, hasn't stopped the Middle Level Commissioners trying to change things. They have long seen boaters as an untapped source of income. There are about two thousand miles of navigable  inland waterways in the UK. The Middle Level Commissioners claim to be the fourth largest authority looking after (let's be generous) one hundred of those miles - i.e about 5%. They are also the only navigational authority in the country to receive money from the Environment Agency for flood defence. There are seven locks associated with the system, two of which (Horseway Lock and Welches Dam Lock) have not worked for years and are, therefore the effective end of navigation on the Forty Foot River.  Bevill's Leam is also useless as a navigation because there is a pumping station near one end that prevents it being an aquatic thoroughfare and Old Popham's Eau is similarly sealed off at Nordelph, only this time by a weir - and so it goes on. Most of the operational locks are also required for sluicing, i.e moving water from one place to another to prevent flooding. Some of the Middle Level sluices also keep tidal water out and there are huge pumps to move excess water, including Europe's largest at Wiggenhall St German, near King's Lynn - however, I am not sure if this one comes under the direct authority of the MLC. While I am not moored on a tidal stretch, the depth of water around and under me can vary greatly and change very quickly and is affected by what happens at St German's. Two nights ago the level went down very considerably overnight. I keep my mooring ropes loose because this is not uncommon. There is no mechanism for warning boaters of sudden and severe changes. Last summer I took my boat to a festival. Twenty-four hours later I got stuck under a bridge through which I had passed unhindered the previous day and only got out with some damage to the boat. The story was that someone had inadvertently left a gate open at one of the pumping stations. About a year ago I wrote in this blog about the devastating effect that unnotified changes in water level can have on the property of boaters when six boats that I knew of ended up being sunk after being caught up in sudden fluctuations of water level. One of those was a cruiser moored nearby. I had to notify the owner and, when he could finally get back to his mooring from working away, I helped him refloat his boat. These fluctuations are clearly functions of the vital drainage operations for which the Commissioners are responsible and from these actions it is clear that drainage and flood defence are indeed the priorities.

Regarding facilities specifically for boaters, there aren't any. The Middle Level Commissioners have no towpaths to maintain; they provide no facilities for boaters - no moorings, no refuse collection, no sanitation or pumping out facilities or indeed any water points for taking on fresh water. They certainly don't provide any laundry, shower or refuelling facilities. There are three privately owned marinas, two near March and one near Ramsey. I only know about one of the facilities at March, which I have used on a few occasions and where I have refuelled and used the water, sanitation, shower and water points whilst having work done on my boat in their yard. Any facilities, mainly 36-hour moorings - few and far between as they are - are maintained by the relevant town or parish council, a local trust or a pub.

The Middle Level Commissioners have tried a few times over the years to get the law changed so they can begin to charge boaters. At the moment there are no means of registering one's boat and no requirement to buy a licence. Any change in this arrangement requires a new act of Parliament. People who own property adjacent to one of the rivers have traditionally been able to use their river frontage as they see fit. They have, after all paid a premium to own the property. If they have a property where the waterway frontage is one of the drains the situation is different and they do not have those same rights or ownership.

Two weeks ago the MLC sponsored a Private Bill through its first reading in the Commons. This Bill is their latest attempt to get the law changed so that they can start milking boaters for money in return for ... well, nothing actually. There is nothing in the proposed Middle Level Bill, which offers boaters the facilities available on other waterways. They claim they may undertake to provide some services, but there are no binding commitments on them to do anything. They seek to force upon boaters many obligations though, through obtaining powers to introduce new bylaws. I could maybe accept something for something (albeit grudgingly), but that is not on offer. Instead, the MLC are wanting the power to make me pay them to register my vessel, charge me an annual license fee, pretend they are a "local authority" without any of the obligations a local authority has to observe, accept new powers for them to enter my boat, to confiscate it, to sell it along with my personal belongings, and propose a number of ways that I can be turned into a criminal which do not exist in statute for either house owners or road vehicle users. I find this is not acceptable and I fail to see the fairness in their proposals. The proposed bylaws also seek to firm up the power that the Commissioners claim to have to tell people how they can use their gardens or fields if they are close to a waterway.

The MLC claim to have notified all interested parties of their intentions in a consultation which, quite by coincidence I am sure, ended a week after last year's EU referendum. I am pretty sure most of us were preoccupied with other matters at the time. The first I got to hear that the long-rumoured Bill was actually ready to roll and had a date for its first reading in the Commons was just before Christmas, about two weeks before it was due to happen. Of all the "interested parties" that had responded to their consultation last year only one boater's club was represented and three angling clubs; other respondents included some genuine local authorities. No unaffiliated boaters were represented and certainly no one who lives full-time on their boats was consulted; strangely, neither were farmers who pay to drain and irrigate their fields nor the property-owners who pay annual drainage rates to the Commissioners.

It may just be that I live with my head in the sand, but I don't think so. The Commissioners seem not to have given much thought to the very serious consequences their proposed changes will impose on people and the security of their homes. Perhaps I am being unfair; maybe they did give lots of thought to us, but in the end they don't really care?

I have seen the work they do at close enough hand to know that if they get more power they will want to use it. From my boat there is only one tree visible. It is a home or a shelter to many birds, including my beautiful kingfisher neighbours, and who knows how many other species too. More than once Middle Level workers have come to cut it down because it interferes with the park-like quality they wish to impose on their "easy-care" river banks. If I kept the river bank next to me in the state the Commissioners would like to see I would be very surprised if the grass-snakes, lizards, buntings, warblers and the variety of small mammals (all of which I have seen in the past twelve months) would stick around. I was under the impression that plant life held river banks together. We know that here near the farm their scorched earth gardening style has caused the bank to subside and slip into the river. That caused the bank to start leaking, a serious threat to the credibility of their flood defence responsibilities.

More controversially, when I first arrived I used to see a particular boat pass by quite often. I never met the owner of the boat, but I did exchange a few e-mail messages with him after a very sad incident when his boat was broken into and his engine stolen while he was on a mission taking one of his dogs to a specialist vet many miles away for treatment. Without this treatment the dog would have been put down. After stealing his engine the thieves set fire to the boat, presumably  to destroy any evidence. Everything the man owned was lost in the fire and he was too far away, in Yorkshire, to do anything about it immediately. Obviously there are more details and at least two sides to the story, but the Commissioners salvaged his boat and confiscated it until he could come up with nearly £6,000 to cover their "costs". The man had pleaded for time to recover the boat himself, which was not granted. When the boat owner could not come up with the salvage money the boat was advertised and eventually sold on eBay for £3,000. The Commissioners continued to demand the balance of their "costs". The man did not only lose all his belongings in the theft and fire, but what was left of his home was taken from him and sold at a price that left him with less than nothing. He had been prepared to recover the boat and he was prepared to re-fit it so that he could have his home of fifteen years back. There was a campaign on one of the funding-type websites which raised nearly enough to cover what the Commissioners eventually accepted on eBay, but to no avail! What a tragic state of affairs.

I would hope that no "local authority" would have it in their power to evict a home-owner and sell off the paid-for home of anyone living in their area with absolute impunity. A local authority would also have to take some measure responsibility for anybody that they themselves had made homeless. The Middle Level Commissioners, through this Bill are seeking the power to take people's homes, but seem to be very quiet about responsibilities that must come with new powers.

Those of us living on and using the Middle Level waterways are watching the outcome of the petitions that have been lodged against the Bill. While HS2, a similar style of Bill, may have attracted hundreds of responses in opposition, the relevant office at Westminster consider the Middle Level Bill campaign unusual in that this relatively unimportant Bill has attracted as many as six petitions against. Most Private Bills go through unopposed. The office has mentioned that representations in person are made against Private Bills maybe only once or twice a year. The six petitioners against this Bill presented themselves at Westminster on two consecutive days. This alone is an indication of the strength of feeling. The campaign is continuing.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Of Level Middles, Rights Of Passage and Bills Of Fair (Part 1)

I have written about procrastination (and precrastination) before, but as time goes on and I continue to age I find that getting-on-with-stuff becomes increasingly difficult. Actually, that is not the complete truth either. It is not the getting-on-with-stuff that is so difficult, but the stopping-the-thinking-about-getting-on-with-stuff that is the main problem. I have the kind of imagination that equips me to visualise in painful detail, before embarking on any project, what an awful burden that project is likely to become.  Most days I have a bit of a plan for the day. If I don't have to get up for a job, though, I can easily stay in bed reading, writing, thinking or simply trying to keep warm till lunch-time. Sometimes I get hungry enough to have to get up and do something about the hunger. There are also days like today when I have to face up to the fact that I have no musical projects for which I HAVE to compose, practise or rehearse; no witty comments to make on everyone else's Facebook indignations and no outrage of my own to be expressing that I haven't already expressed to the point that I bore myself. Politics in the USA and the UK are horribly depressing at the moment and need to be railed against, but even that becomes unsatisfying after a while. I have found myself tied up with a local campaign, though, and here's a little information about that. Unfortunately, it means giving away a little more personal information than I am accustomed to sharing.

For the past few years I have lived in a narrowboat that has never been out of the Fens as far as I know. According to a date embossed into the inside of the hull my boat was apparently built in 2001. I don't know if that is the whole story, because the provenance of the boat is not really clear. I cannot find anyone who recognises the design of the boat, but, according to the local boatyard, they suspect that an engineering company must have wanted to have a go at building a narrowboat so they bought a hull. Once the hull was delivered the engineers designed and fitted a steel cabin along most of its fifty foot length. My boat is what is known as a traditional-style narrowboat on account of having as much space as possible given over to living rather than having the shortened cabin that allows for sitting out on lengthier fore or aft decks. Beyond that, my boat is less traditional. Narrowboats generally taper upwards; the sides slope in towards the roof. This design has some advantages. I think it probably makes handling easier and it means the roof itself is stronger, and less prone to warping being relatively more narrow than the boat measured across the gunwales (or it may actually be "gunnels" on inland boats). The main disadvantage to the liveaboarder of a tapering wall is that nothing hangs straight. It's a bit like living in an attic with no dormer installed. I guess these upright walls also help to give me more internal space, even though when out and about the slightest puff of wind causes the boat to veer off course very quickly.

I rent a bit of river bank from a farmer. He and his family have farmed the land here for at least two generations. He grew up here. When I arrived, there was a jetty that runs the length of the boat. This was the boat's home, but there had been a mooring and an associated landing stage here for decades before the boat was built. The story of how I acquired the boat and the mooring should be recorded sometime, but this is not what I wish to write about now. The story I want to tell goes back into Roman times when the river I am on still existed, although not following the same course. When the farmer was young, this section of the river was pretty overgrown, very narrow and impassable by the sort of craft that use it today. That was not always the case. The River Nene, pronounced "Nenn" in the Northampton area, flows from the Midlands into The Wash at Sutton Bridge where  Lincolnshire, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk meet. For most of us in the Fens stretching to just the other side of Peterborough the river's name is pronounced "Neen". I am tied up on the Nene, but not the new-fangled, sea-going Nene. I am on the "Old Course", part of a navigation that links the East Anglian waterways including the Great Ouse, Little Ouse, Wissey, Lark and Cam with the main inland waterways system. Anyone from, say, the Grand Union Canal making their way by river to, say, Ely, Cambridge or Bedford will pass my mooring and usually my boat. If that is you, make sure you slow down and wave a greeting.

Of New Lives, Reconstructed Stories And The Dearly Departed

2016 was a horrible year for many reasons. Musicians who made the music with which I grew up died in droves, many of them not having attained their allotted span of three-score-and-ten. Terrible wars continued, turkeys went crazy and voted for Christmas (twice) while much closer to home la Devine lost her mother. Then, towards the end of the year she lost her beloved stepfather and in a final flourish we all lost la Femme Canadienne. I suppose having now passed the three-score mark myself, I shall be encountering these end of life changes more frequently. It looks like we enter life in tears and we leave it the same way. I shed many tears in 2016. I wonder how many were for others and how many were for me? 

La Femme Canadienne was truly one of the most remarkable women I have ever met. She moved to France nearly five decades ago with a scholarship from the French government and never went home. She claimed P's mother in an act of annexation, her own being many a thousand miles distant. These were two extraordinary women who had it in them to cause conflagration as the sparks of their determinations could easily set fire to anyone else lingering nearby. Through that act P and his brothers acquired a big sister. Not just a big sister in name, she was their confidante when confidences needed to be shared, aired and considered and she was a fountain of wisdom and advice, particularly adept in dealing with matters of the heart when discussion with one's own mother was completely out of the question. She saw the world very clearly and did not suffer fools at all, although somehow she found fathomless depths of compassion for others less fortunate. One always knew when a conversation had run its course. She would dismiss the other party or simply get up and leave. That way, no welcome was ever outstayed.

In the over-world she was an academic and university lecturer while in the under-world she volunteered in a soup kitchen and established recycling projects redistributing life's necessities among those who lacked. She collected clothes for homeless men whose own apparel would never survive laundering. She recruited others into practical acts of humanity. She wrote academic treatises, published books on obscure and erudite subjects. The choir of which she was a member undertook some surprisingly challenging repertoire from the contemporary canon. She operated per "project" and always had a project on the go. I was amazed to find myself standing in a museum in Lyons a few years ago surrounded by the artefacts that accompanied the research for one of her projects. Typically it was in an area in which there had been no prior research carried out, so she had started this project from scratch. Whole rooms of the museum had been given over to her work, which has since travelled to other museums in France.  That was the first time I remember realising that her contribution to the culture of her adopted homeland went far beyond our little family clique. The ultimate proof of her academic achievement was the award of a prize from the esteemed Académie française a few of years ago.

I think she was proud to have her work acknowledged in the highest of high places, but she wore that very lightly as she continued to volunteer in the soup kitchen and continued to help distribute recycled clothing to homeless men. She said in a newspaper interview that any pair of shoes would find a needy pair of feet. I never saw her in this role, but I cannot imagine her ever being condescending. She was completely pragmatic, albeit a force of nature when she considered it necessary. Where others saw problems, she saw solutions. Among her many projects she made things. She changed things. The ordinary became the extraordinary. When she moved into a new home she knocked down walls to change the shapes of rooms. She flattened the most unassuming of cookware into two-dimensional shapes to create artistic displays, which she pinned to any walls left standing. She had accumulated an over-abundance of ties (they no longer being seen by many as a necessary item of clothing) and these would never be distributed amongst her gentlemen. Some of these ties - actually, to be blunt, most of them - were horrible and, even given the extreme circumstances of many of her clientele, most still found the wherewithal to hang on to a last shred of dignity. She embraced the notion that we are all entitled, even in deprivation, to have standards. Her solution to the surfeit was to sew them together and make them into skirts for the indoor containers in which Christmas trees were potted. Ingenius! She loved dictionaries and took pages from her "swaps" to decorate furniture, walls and even the front door to her small apartment in the medieval centre of the city that housed the university in which she taught.

The first time I met her was at her other house in a remote town in the mountains. After the eighteen years P had spent focusing on his own career, as well as dealing with the ongoing aftermath of family tragedy, La Femme wanted to celebrate P's fortune in finding a lover and took the three of us out to dinner. During the conversation she let slip that her great-grandmother had been a lady-in-waiting to Queen Victoria. Earlier that afternoon she had sent us out for a walk. Knowing P's love of cooking, not to mention his culinary skills, she had decided to make us each an apron. We'd accompanied her to her sewing room where she threw open several suitcases filled with cotton fabrics. She thought a Mondrian print would suit P. perfectly while she thought I was somewhat more Art Nouveau. Within the hour we'd returned from our walk to the cemetery to be presented with our finished aprons. When not in (frequent) use they still hang from hooks on P's kitchen door in proud display almost a decade and a half later.

In the apartment of the late Femme Canadienne with aprons, candles and her real life sister

The cemetery we'd visited that afternoon has become an emblem in my life. It signifies one of the points I wanted to explore in this essay. P's brother died tragically young in 1994. Before his illness became so bad that he had to move into hospital he was living with la Femme Canadienne. His big sister had taken him in to take some of the heat off the family. In her pragmatic way she had already bought herself a plot in the cemetery for when her time came. She made a bargain with her little brother that whoever needed the grave first could have it. They both knew it wouldn't be her. Although a three-hour drive into the mountains P and I visit when we can. That afternoon we'd taken the opportunity to weed, water and tidy the plot as he had done many times before and we have done together many times since. In 2011 we buried P's mother in the other half of the double-sized plot. That was the completion of at least two circles in the weave of these lives that have come to mean so much to me. 

These are stories of real events that I can only have lived through the telling. Whenever the family gets together real history is revisited and I can never be part of that. There is also an "older brother", another stray taken in by P's mother. Older Brother is an Anglais who now has French citizenship and who has recently retired from a lifetime of employment in France. He is another lovely person who is woven into the family narrative. He, like la Femme Canadienne, la Devine and the wives of P's brothers can all talk about a past where so much has happened and in which I have played no part. I would like to have played a part. For reasons I don't understand I do not feel the same sense of disconnect in conversation with P's father. I wonder what's going on? It's something we haven't talked about, but now I am discussing it with myself I am sure we shall. One of the beautiful things about P is that no topic of conversation is off limits. I would love to have been part of that narrative, though. I would love to have known P's brother. While I can rejoice that I knew his mother and la Femme Canadienne, and that I have met most of the surviving cast, those reminiscences still jab at a sensitive place somewhere deep inside. Do I label these feelings with some derogatory epithet? If so are they irrational, selfish or simply pointless and unrealistic? I wonder if P feels the same about my family's history?

P and I were in England and could not get to the funeral of our departed sister. On the morning we received a spate of text messages. Her own sister, in France from Canada, was searching for the music that La Femme had said she wanted to be played when the time came. It would not be found. The music she wanted was a composition I had written and recorded with my band ten years previously in commemoration of that gift of a final resting place for P's brother. We were able to get them a file of the music just in time. A couple of weeks later, we went to France and went up into the mountains to say our own private goodbyes. We played my music again and read messages and poems in memory at the new grave of a very special woman.

View from the graveside across a sea of marble

Friday, 3 February 2017

Of The End Of A Holiday And A Winterising Failure

My exit from the church didn't quite go to plan. I thought I was there until the 5th January. However, the e-mail I had sent asking for information from my two artist friends elicited the 14th January as the return date from their Antipodean odyssey. This was not at all expected and was, naturally, a sledgehammer blow to my excitement about going home to my boat. I also had a gig on the 14th, so I would now need to be extra careful about making sure I planned everything properly and had everything I would need in whatever place it was needed. P. had gone back to France on the 2nd. Three more days alone in someone else's house was bad enough, but bearable. Another nine days beyond that felt like a life sentence. A little solace was offered when I realised that the boiler engineer did not actually return to the UK until the 9th, which at least meant that I would be likely to be able to get the boiler working and the house warm for their return from their summer holiday. A return to the ice, fog, and freezing temperatures of the Fens under a high pressure system would not have been the most welcome of homecomings for them after their scuba exploration of the Great Barrier Reef.

I planned my exit carefully. It was, of course, unlike me. I would use the last couple of days to move my instruments and other paraphernalia out of the house. Having brought over several personal items to avoid me having to search through their cupboards I would also remove some of my cookware and unused foodstuffs. I would wash everything that needed washing on the penultimate day except the bottom sheet and pillow cases. The remaining bedding I could wash on the morning of departure after I had used it for the final time. I was sleeping under one of my own duvets (and two of theirs on top of that), so there was nothing that needed washing in any hurry there. I was also using my own towels and pillow, but there were other pillowcases on the remaining pillows so they would also go into the washing machine. Sorted.

The day before the day of planned departure my phone rang at just after eight in the morning. It wasn't yet warm enough to get up so I was still in bed reading "Jollity Farm: A History of The Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band", having crept back under the stack of duvets following morning matins with sooty vacuum cleaner and pellet boiler worship.

"Hi, we're back. I got the dates mixed up, what with the time zones and everything. We stayed in London last night and we'll be home this afternoon; probably leave here around lunchtime ..."

I got up then, spurred into action in the panic of a whole twenty-four hours less than I was expecting for executing my impeccable exit strategy. Everything went into the washing machine, I made some porridge and some ginger tea for breakfast, went outside to feed the tits, the robin, the pheasants five and Clayton Peacock and launched into the clearing up. By that time I estimated I had three or four hours to make the house welcoming. A quick check on the leaking stopcock (up three flights of stairs in the attic) revealed that my repair had held and the bucket I had left under the valve contained very little water. I packed my belongings into their cases and bags and began loading the van. With everything out of the way I could use one of the other vacuum cleaners to clean through the two floors I had been inhabiting for the past six weeks. Washing up, done and put away, fresh linen on the beds, but the guest bedroom worried me.

P. has a friend, well these days we both have a friend, The Divine Miss M. During a tragic 2016 she lost her mother, the stepfather she had known since she was eight (her biological father having passed away when she was very young) and the home she grew up in. P. felt that leaving her on her own for this first Christmas would be very difficult for her so we had invited her to stay. I'll admit that in the early days of our relationship, I was very jealous of the tiny amount of time I would have with P. I always found it difficult to share him. I had to come to terms with the fact that he and La Divine had been close friends and dancing partners for more than three decades. They saw each other most weekends and for many of these past few years they had plotted, planned, administered, choreographed and rehearsed some amazing and beautiful shows. The French for "show" isn't "le spectacle" for nothing. In the time P. and I have been together, I have known him and La Divine take their performances to various parts of Switzerland, France and Italy. I have always been very proud to see his work from the audience. Occasionally I was even roped into the performances as an extra dancer - men, as ever, being in short supply for such endeavours. One day I may go into the parting of the ways between them and the Swiss company with whom they worked. This isn't that day. Much as I have had to learn to accept and embrace their friendship I could not have seen her spend this Christmas on her own either. So, she had come to England with P. - her first visit to the U.K for forty-three years. If I were to intimate that my French is actually better than her English that would be an understatement. It still amazes me that there could be someone less fluent in a second language than me. She knows, "Hello," and not much else. Even after all these years she cannot pronounce my name except with a rolled r and a stress on the final syllable, so charmingly French. She is, however, incredibly patient with me and she is one of the few in P's circle of family and friends who I am sure does not judge me badly for having made such little progress with learning French during the past fourteen years. Our conversations are slow and my French falteringly constructed as I try to get my brain into the reverse gear demanded of a rosbif attempting to speak French while simultaneously trying to remember vocabulary, tenses, gender agreements, conjugations, declensions, pronouns and the occasional idiomatic phrase. I'm not sure, actually I know, that I don't understand much of what she says to me, but we manage simple conversations ... of a sort. I am pretty sure she appreciates my efforts, though I daresay she finds them highly amusing. She is, however, one of those French people for whom manners are everything. I shall never know what she really thinks of my efforts to speak French. It would not cross her mind to pass comment nor would she, I suspect, pass judgement.

I stated that the guest bedroom worried me. Try as I might during the final couple of weeks, after P. and La D. had rentréed, I could not air the room enough to clear the odour of her perfume. I hoped my friends would be able to cope with the aroma of expensive and persistent parfum even though I had washed everything I could find that might harbour the residue.

This tale is long enough already, but there is a little more to share. I expected my friends to be back by two in the afternoon at the latest. That would give me time to return my belongings to their usual scattered locations. I really needed daylight because I wanted to get some water back into the tanks on the boat. At 4pm they phoned to say they were just leaving London. Daylight was fading fast by then, so I hid the key, sending a text to say where, and set off to salvage what daylight I could. Filling up with water is an operation that uses three linked hosepipes from a standpipe in the farmyard to my water tank under the foredeck, a distance of some seventy metres. The bank is slippery and often muddy, the steps to my jetty often lose their fastenings to mock the unwary in their crazy realignments, while other people on adjacent moorings, which I have to cross, have bits of metal and wood sticking up at awkward angles. As much light as possible is advisable. I started to fill the tank, but being completely empty it wasn't even half full after an hour. I had to get back to the church, because there were things I needed to show my friends rather than leave for them to discover. I had also planned to go and perform at a new local open mic that evening where two friends were also debuting. Naturally all this delay put everything back. Rolling up the hosepipes I stumbled in the darkness into a metal spike on a neighbouring plot and still bear the remnants of the graze that ran the length of my shin, blood staining my trousers and running into my sock. My friends couldn't find the key, so I had to talk them to the spot, before I set off having only half filled the tank. They had wondered what state the house would be in when they arrived home. She thought I may have wrecked it and and had had to undertake a frantic last minute cleaning operation. He said that he didn't think I would do that. They both met me with smiles saying it was cleaner and tidier than when they had left. Thankfully it was also warm. That was my main concern for them. In their hospitable way they insisted I stay for something to eat and, of course, we talked and talked.

By the time I left them to take instruments and equipment back to my lockup it was gone eight. From there I went to the open mic just in time to see my friends, having completed their sets, packed up and ready to leave ... yes, the venue had been that awful and I was rather relieved I hadn't made it in time either to share their misery or to inflict the misery of my own performance on a small, but largely indifferent, audience. This audience was, it seemed primarily made up of the members of one family who had come to support a fifteen year-old BGT wannabe who was warbling her way through her extensive karaoke programme by the time I arrived. My songs of lust, blasphemy, death and dissent would probably not have been well received.

I got back to the boat after midnight which, after having been unlived in for the previous six weeks, was morbidly cold. I had set the fire earlier in the evening needing only a match to make it spring into life. Of course, the matches had taken umbrage, as had the kindling, newspaper and even the walnut shells I collected for starting up a fire. All had a moisture content that prevented a fire from catching. In shame I dug out a firelighter and broke the paraffin block into smaller pieces. I lit that instead, which eventually set fire to the kindling, the nutshells and the paper. The coal nuggets were the only part of the procedure that caught light in the expected order. I turned away from the fire, which had taken hold in the stove to fill the kettle for a warming nightcap. As the kettle began to boil I gradually became aware of a hissing sound. I turned and lost my footing on a wet galley floor. Water, a filthy black cascade of water, was actually pouring out of the stove and on to the floor. I screamed a few choice obscenities and pulled at the steps by the front door to reach the stop cock between the cold water tank and the main pump. I rushed to the back of the boat to switch off the power to the pump. Still the water kept flowing I grabbed towels and bowls, rags and a dustpan to scoop up as much of the evil black liquid as I could. It was quite a sight to see the fire roaring and water pouring through the ashpan under the grate and over the floor. It found its way through the nooks and crannies along the port side to emerge as a black pond spreading from under the washing machine in the galley and from there into and through the bathroom. Its progress was being checked slightly by the fitted carpet at the entrance to my cabin. It was a hell of a mess. Eventually the water stopped flowing, but I was still mopping up at two in the morning.  Welcome home.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Of Sitting For Old Churches

December disappeared more quickly than seemed decent for a month equipped with a fullness of thirty-one days. It was an odd month, though, because not only did it seem afterwards to have disappeared quickly it also felt as though it took an excruciatingly long time to happen while I was in the middle of it, especially for the weeks I was living on my own. This essay explains a little of what happened.

During the Grand Boat Repaint last August some friends asked me to consider house-sitting while they went away on holiday to The Other Side Of The World for a few weeks at the end of the year. I am pretty sure they thought this would be a jolly jape, not to mention a mutually beneficial scheme. They saw me as being doomed to a cramped and cold existence on my boat and they had an old house in need of a bit of security. These are the friends who would not take a "thanks, but no thanks" in answer when offering me a bed for a few days when what I actually wanted was to spend August living in my van as the boat was being blasted back to bare steel. I had a lot of other things to do during August, so I had genuine reasons for not taking up their offer, but I failed to find excuses for turning down the invitation for the last few days of the month. I went to stay. They were indeed lovely hosts, but I was really looking forward to getting back home to my newly repainted boat after four or five days and may not have been the most gracious of guests.

I thought about the offer of a stone and mortar dwelling for December and eventually agreed to look after their house. Obviously it would be doing them a favour and I do find it hard to resist an offer to do someone a little kindness if it is at all within my power. This offer though had one or two advantages. Their "house" is one half of a deconsecrated church (the half with the church tower) in a remote part of the Fens. They said a house like theirs needs people in it and that I could invite whomever I wanted for company. Since it was Christmas and New Year, I could even host parties there. Of course, P. was the first person I thought about. I know he likes the house and it was going to  be lovely to have his company there over Christmas. Not being on the boat would mean we would have all that time together without being forced to squeeze past each other several times a day, even though the squeezing past had long ago morphed into a lovers' game that never fails to amuse. Then I realised it would be the first time ever I would be in a position to be able to invite my children and their families over for Christmas. I thought also that an Old Year's Night with friends and the sharing of music and poetry would also be pretty good. It began to look like a more attractive offer.

What they didn't know, and what was holding me back, is that I am always very wary of leaving the boat in cold weather. I am terrified about returning home to burst pipes and the floor awash. The first year on the boat I left one of those oil-filled radiators running on a low temperature and came home from France to an enormous electricity bill. Other years I went through the rather odd boating ritual of "winterising" the boat which, as far as I could tell, meant emptying all the water out of the calorifier and the cold water tank, disconnecting the main pump, leaving the taps open, isolating the gas bottles from the galley appliances and hoping for the best. Of course, the longest I had been away during the colder months before was six days. This time I was being asked to be away for six weeks.

Fortunately, my friends' house is mere yards from a navigable river. The obvious solution was therefore to take the boat with me and keep an eye on it daily. I had walked along the river bank in the summer and, while mardling with some of the less aggressive looking boaters, managed to make tentative arrangements for a temporary mooring for December for what I would normally pay for my own mooring. Then I began to do the sums. Two sets of mooring fees, diesel for the journey, but the biggest outlay would be for the river license I would need to travel on this waterway, which was managed by a different authority from the one where I am normally resident. Navigable inland waterways in England were once mainly managed by British Waterways and the Environment Agency. When British Waterways lost the gig The Canal and River Trust took on the franchise. There are a number of other smaller waterways authorities too, but these two are the largest players in the game. I am normally resident on water managed by neither of them so I would need to spend several hundred pounds on a license to cover me for up to two months. Where I live there is actually no mechanism for registering boats, so in order to get a license, I would need to be registered - obviously at yet more expense. Despite my general antipathy towards adventures, I still thought this one would be worth it.  P., though, is far more cautious about what he sees as unnecessary expenditure and tried to talk me out of it. We started to add up the costs and it was clear we were possibly approaching a four-figure sum once we threw everything into the mix. Another consideration was that this was happening during the same time that Karl was going to be be returning to install the new canopy for the cratch (see earlier posting). I couldn't fairly expect him to travel those extra miles. In the end the decision was made for me. I discovered a stoppage (a closure of the waterway) about a mile from my home mooring to allow for river dredging was in the offing. If I didn't manage to get back in time I would be stuck the wrong side of the stoppage for three months. That would not be convenient at all, so I decided, reluctantly, against taking the boat. I planned to visit the boat every couple of days and to keep an eye on it.

I became a church mouse at the beginning of December. The church had had time to cool down from its usual inhabitants' heating habits. There were two forms of heating - a large wood burning stove in the large kitchen and an even larger pellet-guzzling boiler/stove that fed the hot water system and a rudimentary central heating system in the living room. This beast took up almost half of the living room space. The rituals required for getting it to fire-up and stay functioning were elaborate. It had its own specialised sooty vacuum cleaner and matins consisted of the sound of the vacuum sucking out the previous day's unconsumed, but burnt, offerings. The beast fed on pellets made from compressed sawdust which fed into a sacrificial chalice, via an augur mechanism, from a huge hopper on the back of the burner. Starting up the boiler involved the use of a blowtorch applied in a thirty-second blast until some of the pellets glowed sufficiently strongly to stay aglow in the stream of air that was pumped up through the chalice containing the offering. Each day was a dies irae. There was a straightforward electrical timer attached to the assembly and I had taken lessons. I had even filmed the instructions on my tablet for later private study as I had been receiving them. I knew what to do. I also had the name and telephone number of the local heating engineer should there be a problem. He had installed the boiler and, it had been alleged, knew all its foibles in a disconcertingly intimate way. What could possibly go wrong? I was equipped for everything - everything, that is, except how cold I would be. I kept the boiler working until it switched itself off at 11.30 each evening, but I could not get the radiators to warm up at all. The boiler was also well enough insulated to prevent any convected heat warming the air anywhere in its proximity. After a few nights of near frozen hibernation I went back to my boat for my hot water bottle. This, along with three duvets on top and my sleeping bag (which I always keep in the van) opened out underneath the bottom sheet, did actually help me stay warm. I did not get up very early for the first few days unless I had to go to a school for work. I needed the sun to shine so that I could at least imagine what being warm was like. This was my routine until the boiler packed up altogether and I was forced to boil kettles for my hot water too. This wasn't so different from being on the boat after all ... until I ran out of logs for the wood-burner.

Not having permission to expose my friends' home to intrusive scrutiny
here is a peacock - one of the daily visitors to the garden who came
for his breakfast. He would sit on the step and lean against the glass back
door to the kitchen. Since both my friend and myself have long been fans of
the music of John Fahey, he could only ever be called "Clayton".

I do find old buildings fascinating and this was no exception. Much as I love strange corners and hideaways, this was also the home of my friends and I had no interest in peering into spaces beyond what was necessary to ensure all was well and to locate cookware, cutlery and any other bits and pieces necessary for the day-to-day. I was uneasy enough looking for clean bed linen! This was an issue of trust. Snooping is not an honourable way to repay any such trust as they must have had when considering asking me to house-sit. Something one of them said to me before they left, though, made it sound as though that was what he was expecting me to do and that any curiosity would be quite normal. I thought that was weird enough, but when in later conversation with an acquaintance who asked me how much of my friend's underwear I had used (actually, he said used), I could only think WTF!! Seriously, is this how other people behave? At the end of my six weeks I had no idea where any of his or his wife's clothes were kept apart from a few coats on a hook near the front door and a virtual Imelda of footwear that lined the walls in the bedroom I was using. I mention this mainly because it helps explain part of the picture in the next bit of the story and partly because I still can't believe such behaviour was actually expected.

On my first day there I had a look in each of the rooms just to make sure everything looked okay. There was, however, one room on the top floor to which I couldn't open the door. I assumed it was either locked or that my friends knew about it. I didn't really give it another thought until my children and grandchildren came to visit just before Christmas. I gave them a tour round the house and it was only then that I noticed that the floor near the locked door was wet. I had been told there had been a leak somewhere and thought this was residual from that, so I put some towels down as per the written instructions left for me. A day or so later I had to roll the carpets back. Eventually the floor had dried sufficiently for me to be able to force the door open enough to be able to squeeze into the room. Once inside, though, I saw water running off one of the oak ceiling beams. I had been warned about roof leaks and there were buckets set out strategically and perhaps I should have been more curious and pro-active. Unfortunately this water was also dripping on to a book shelf and on to stacks of craft materials. I moved everything that was under the worst of the flow and found more buckets and towels. I also went up into the attic to look at the roof but that actually seemed dry and I couldn't see water coming in from the outside. There were, however,  two cold water tanks and an expansion tank (this last being way above my reach and I would need a ladder to get anywhere close if that's what I needed to do). The water tanks were underneath and behind a barrage of stuff, which I moved by torchlight. Eventually I found the cause of the leak, a stopcock valve that needed replacing or tightening. Water was not just dripping, it was flowing along the shaft and on to the floor of the attic and from there into the room below. I found the main stopcock and shut off the water. Now, not only did I not have heat, I didn't have water either. This was turning into a bit of a nightmare.

There was nothing for it. I would have to interrupt the holiday and get some advice about what they wanted me to do. Among his many skills he was a builder and he had installed the plumbing so he knew his way around. I fired off an e-mail and received an answer some hours later. At least now I knew where to isolate that part of the system so that I could have running (cold) water in the kitchen and bathroom. It took a while, but eventually I located an adjustable spanner and tightened the stopcock to the point that it would now probably take two weeks to fill the bucket I'd put in place rather than two hours. The advice about the heating was to clear out the hopper and see if there was a jam. I'd already tried this twice after having looked for a similar problem via YouTube, but I did it again just in case I could do it better this time. In fact I cleared out that hopper many times over the next few days trying to locate and release a pellet or sawdust jam. The effect of this jam was an insufficiency of pellets being released into the chalice to keep the fire alight. As it happened this was not the problem at all (which may explain why I couldn't fix it), although I wasn't to find that out until near the end of my stay. Calling the official installer/engineer was out of the question for another week or so, because he was in his "other house" in France with his family. The best I could do was to try and get some more logs so I could light the woodburner in the kitchen. I didn't know where my friends got their logs from, but fortunately a mate of "the engineer" (the one who had helped me wth my boat and whom I mentioned last year) sells logs. I sent a text message to him and he sent back his mate's phone number. Within twenty-four hours I was half a load of logs better off and a ton worse off. It had been longer than I realised since I had needed to buy a large quantity of logs. These logs were really good, though, and burned beautifully. I really didn't expect them to be so good. At least now a huddle round the stove was an option.

There was an outcome. The boiler engineer returned from his French sojourn and when I phoned him on the day of his return he was on the doorstep within the hour. There was no jam. The motor that drove the auger was not working properly and needed replacing. Luckily this man knew that this Heath Robinson system had a similar motor for driving another bit of the boiler that had long ago packed up. He dug into the guts of the beast and cannibalised the other motor. At last the boiler started to work. Once it was working I also discovered the need to switch on a pump in the upstairs bathroom to circulate water from the boiler to the radiators. It never did become warm, but at least the chill was off the air - five weeks after I first moved in and a week before I eventually moved out.