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.
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.