Author Archives: Richard Varnes
Life on a narrowboat can be as peaceful as it is idyllic BUT you need to understand the pros, cons, highs, lows, and day to day logistics in living on England's inland waterways. Let me help you find out all you need to know before you commit to what could be a very expensive mistake.
Author Archives: Richard Varnes
We had signed up for one of the “theme nights” at “our” newly discovered local tea room “Kay’s” located in Willington — a small Derbyshire village about 20 minutes down the towpath from Mercia Marina where “Stardust” was to have her winter mooring. “Kay’s” is the epitome of a charming English tea room, run by three indefatigable and warm-hearted middle-aged sisters: Jackie, Sharon and Susie. On the Willington high street, the small white-walled shop is open seven days a week, come rain or shine or wind or sleet — or, it being England, all of the above in quick succession.
Kay’s is named for their fourth sister who died from a crippling spinal illness over forty years ago — her picture and a collection of tender and candid family photos, featuring Kay being happily wheeled about on various family outings, hang on the walls.
I think it was Mexican Night when the event in question took place — because I remember Susie appearing periodically in a serape and moustache and there was a decent quantity of excellent tequila at some point.
Valari and I had a small table in the corner — with the other tables occupied by a single woman, a couple, two other couples and, right behind us, a table of four very lively women of a certain age, including Sheila — one of the village matriarchs whose wheel-chair had been neatly tucked away in the next room.
For a long time conversation remained quiet and within the bounds of each table — to the extent that we thought: “how very British, clearly these are fine, friendly people, yet so restrained….”
But, imperceptibly, close quarters and good wine began to gently peel away the thin veneer of propriety and before long old friends were calling to and joshing each other across the room.
I was sitting closest to the next table and suddenly a very striking and handsome older woman with close cropped hair and a positively wicked gleam in her eye turned around and, addressing me calmly and directly, said (of her companions): “They’re weighing you up you know — that’s what they’re doing…” And then she turned away leaving me to ponder what exactly was included in this “weighing up” and to wonder what the result might be — especially if I was found wanting.
Before I had much time to consider my fate, Beryl, for that turned out to be her name, swivelled round again and said with that same challenging gleam: “I’ll bet it’s been a long time since you were weighed up…?”
Indeed! Well, this was more than could be passed off with a diffident “I suppose so” or “rather not I think” or some other feeble response. So, I picked up my trusty verbal racket and decided to send a scorcher straight down the centre line on Beryl’s side of the net.
“Well” I sipped my wine and responded slowly, keeping my eyes locked with hers, “it certainly has been a long time since I’ve been told that was what was going on…!” Whereupon their table erupted in gales of laughter and calls of“he’s got you now Beryl he does, he’s got you now!”
And from that point on we were no longer strangers and thereafter always passed the time and talked of walking and the weather whenever we met at Kay’s or out on the high street.
However, back to Mexican night — making a classic beginner’s mistake, we were among the first to leave Kay’s at about 10:30 and so missed the excitement of Beryl and company wheeling Sheila out the door and, in a moment of mysterious unsteadiness, almost dumping her out on the sidewalk — and me and my camera gone but moments ago….
It was a time of beginning to find our way into the life of this small English village where so many people have lived all their lives or had gone away only to return to Willington and its close, quiet life beside the Trent and Mersey Canal.
It was a time of laughter and the pleasant discovery of new friends in the making. Within weeks, though, our friendship with Sharon and Jackie and Susie and Beryl and Sheila and many others would dive quickly and deeply into the most intimate areas of loss and joy that life brings us.
A few days after Andrew’s suicide I went to Kay’s for a late lunch and, my face betraying too much, I could not help but tell what had happened. It was one of those moments where people either close up to you or their hearts open and, of course, they sat with me and heard the whole story and then began to talk of the loses in their own lives — the death of their mother and a close friend within a week, a husband’s suicide, the recent passing of a dear friend and, of course, the loss of their sister Kay; all those things that tear us open and say to us: “Look: I am Life and Death and I am Terrible and Beautiful!”
After that, these wonderful women were always there for me. In the same way as we hold a candle for someone stumbling darkness they knew just when to come over and share a cuppa with me or when they should just go on with work and let me slip alone into the Daily Mail, or, in real desperation, The Sun or the Mirror — and so be taken away and diverted for a few decadent minutes.
The winter days of the north Midlands shortened to almost nothing and the cold rain increased, but several times a week I, or we, were at Kay’s — where we knew people and where we were known. And, by the coming of spring, there was laughter now and again — as there must be inside a small refuge of friends within the vast landscape of all humanity — every one, sooner or later, touched by fire.
And, as our time to leave England approached, there was the final, memorable “Burns Night” at Kay’s — where Valari made the traditional “Address to the Haggis” and I had the high honor of plunging a large carving knife into the delicious steaming mass — and I think there was good whisky that night too…
Now we are back in Denver — drawn to help our families, touched anew by the ravening challenges of being human.
I miss each of the “Kay Sisters” every day. The home-made bread that Susie bakes and the soups and pies cooked by Sharon and Jackie are still, in my heart, only as far away as a short walk down the canal and into town for a bit of a natter with good friends.
Today we happened upon a small cafe-type restaurant in Atherstone, Staffordshire called “The Larder” — a simple store-front converted into a restaurant with an unusual theme: the life of sacrifice (that included food) experienced by most of the British during WWII. The walls are covered with old food and petrol ration cards, original and reproduced propaganda posters about Victory Gardens and so forth — while in the background play speeches by Neville Chamberlain, and then Churchill, mixed with “In the Mood” and other period songs. The two female servers dress in period costume as well – one in tan work overalls and the other in a ruffled frock that somehow reminded me of my mother. The menu included, but was not limited to, wartime “dishes” such as Spam Fritters and Beans – which I immediately ordered — only to find, alas, that they had run out of Spam and I had to settle for local “Bangers in a Bun”.
So, it is probably understandable that, initially, we mistook the eye-popping entrance of a nattily dressed older man as the arrival of some additional member of the staff. But it turned out that “Peter” was just one of the regulars at The Larder – but a regular loved by all it was clear. He was dressed to perfection in a grey hat, striped jacket, blue trousers with turquoise socks and a well-knotted tie and handkerchief of matching color, finished off by perfect accents in his pale blue shirt. Valari got to the camera first and began quietly shooting as he fiddled with his half-hunter pocket watch and ordered a coffee.
Peter was visual richness itself – the clothes notwithstanding, there was a true sparkle in his eyes that seemed to radiate life and intelligence and that; a gleam that somehow made sense of the large but subtle diamond ring and the aging tattoos on his wrists and above the second knuckle of each finger.
It wasn’t long before he called out in our direction: “Do I detect a trans-Atlantic accent…?” and so began a long conversation, first across the restaurant — then I took my tea over to his table and we really started in. I commented that my wife and I are both photographers and so immediately had noticed his exuberant taste in clothes — to which he responded: “It is deliberate and in a little while I will tell you in what manner it is deliberate” indicating his hat and tie.
Then began the warp and woof of a lifetime of stories including: the first anniversary of the death of his wife of 30 years and his real loss of her to Alzheimer’s over four years ago; stories about Peter’s past (born in Canada, son of an aristocrat who had run off with his mother — a domestic servant on the family estate); the British Army in Malaysia at age 18; continuing “work” in places such as Australia, South Africa, Egypt and South Yemen. “Work” that, he quietly implies, remains largely shrouded in the Official Secrets Act.
But, always the emerging narrative pattern circles back to accounts of the real and present joy in Peter’s life at age 83. “You know what happens when you dress like this? he asked. “Women notice you. In fact, they are positively enchanted by you. Therefore, I dress like this because it attracts interest — and besides it helps me do things that would get a younger chap slapped silly”.
“Such as…?” I query, genuinely almost scandalized.
“Well”, says Peter, “Let’s say that I am charmed by a young lady sales clerk who concludes our business by asking if there is anything else I would like? And I say “only your phone number”. And you know, more often than not, I get it! Then, perhaps she and I have coffee and perhaps I ask the lady if we can meet again and she says “yes” and so I suggest a short train ride, just 25 miles or so, to a town with a very fine Italian restaurant where she and I could have panna cotta – how can she resist?
I remarked that old-fashioned manners and respect appeared to also be part of his charm and success.
“Of course. When I was young and learning “the facts of life” my mother told me: “Peter, when you go looking for a lady friend or a wife, remember that what women most want, whether they will tell you or not, is kindness.”
“And, I find this approach does very well with women in the range of 19 to 46.” Peter is speaking specifically here because his current “friends” include 19 year-old in Leicester and a 46 year-old in Birmingham. “Yes”, he mused “very attractive women at that…”
“And that is why the way I dress is deliberate. After all,” Peter concluded: If you’re going back into the orchard at my age — why on earth would you not pick the very best and sweetest of the apples…?”
With that, Peter graciously paid for all our lunches, picked up his silver topped cane and stepped back onto the high street.
On Tuesday I took the Great Western train out west to visit my old friend Hilda B who lives in Somerton, Somerset. Unfortunatey, Somerton’s rail stop was eliminated many years ago and so the closest station is Castle Cary and from their you take a cab or bus.
Going at this time of year required navigating around the enormous Glastonbury Festival (which actually takes place in Pilton) for which Castle Cary is the closest train connection. By Tuesday the tsunami of rock fans had largely passed through leaving only a few dozen stragglers at the station.
I first met Hilda in 1985 — the year a small group of us Boulderites bought a holiday cottage in Somerton. At that time Hilda was just moving out of the thatched cottage in nearby Compton-Dundon where she had lived for many years, and into Council housing in the same village. Three years ago Hilda moved into Somerton and has now been in the same area 55 years.
Formerly a nurse in the town of Street, two miles north, Hilda’s life has since been a gradually slowing mix of gardening, visits from her son Julian in Devon and reading and needlework in the winter.
In talking of her various houses, she recalled the time as a little girl when the family lived near Bristol in another thatched dwelling. For the first time, the street outside was being paved and the equipment included an immense steam-roller which was, at that time, actually powered by a steam engine that threw out masses of smoke and sparks. Hilda’s jog was to perch on the roof top and sweep off any sparks that threatened to ignite the thatch. “Very nice thatch is” she said: “Cool in the summer and warm in the winter.”
Our conversation sparkled and wound through everything from The Rolling Stones to her parents life “in service”. Until her death, Hilda’s mother had been lady’s maid to Alice Clarke, of the shoe family in Street.
After a lovely lunch at the Lime Kiln Pub, we had tea at her cosy Council cottage and then it was goodbye and back to London. As I was leaving she said “So lovely to see you. I don’t think of you very often — but I do think…. I mean of you…”
It is so interesting where we find anchors in this wide world.
Beside the wind-rippled greenish water of the old canal, at the center of Europe’s largest city, a Grey Heron has followed the canal in from the Middlesex countryside sixteen miles away. Last night, from the stern of our boat in Paddington Basin, I watched this quiet professor of fish hunt in the glom of late evening.
Overall, this is a delicate and elegant bird — looking as if it were clothed in a trim, close fitting mourning coat. However, up close, one can see a telltale wisp of black feathers dropping down along the back of its head creating the absurd impression of an eccentric professor or vain maestro with one last pathetic length of black hair swept back and down.
The Grey Heron is a shallow-water fisher, tall with long yellow-orange legs, a compact oval grey-blue body and, of course, a long powerful neck and extended beak that resembles a forked spear when open. With a head no wider than its neck — presumably for a swifter strike into the water — the unsettling effect of a headless bird is created when it turns to look directly at me in the almost night.
On many evenings the heron come to hunt at London’s Paddington Basin, which is not round, as its name night suggest, but in reality a rectangular channel angling down from Little Venice – the termination of the Paddington Arm of the Grand Union Canal. Narrowboats and wide-beams line the edges of the basin, followed by a modern cobbled walkway and then sheer steel and glass commercial and residential buildings ring the water; reflected in it day and night.
Successfully camouflaged amid the blue glass and the darker blue of the day’s last sky shimmering in water, the heron finds its place. Almost beside our boat, between two mooring pontoons, is a walkway and steel pedestrian bridge with an unseen cement support beam a few inches below the water’s surface. Stalking this invisible path, the heron takes up its work – very, very slowly pacing the beam — its entire body a poised expression of focused observation and meticulous stealth.
Often not moving at all for a minute or two, the bird searches back and forth with a halting but impeccable grace; step….step….step….wait! Step…step…wait…step… lifting each individual leg and placing it down with almost unbearable care and slowness. Then a pause with the neck coiled back in a Swan-like “S”. Then, SNICK — the beak, in and out of the water in less than an instant, followed by something toothsome descending a long feathered gullet.
Meanwhile several people have passed over the metal bridge, their steps clearly tapping or clumping along, faces glowing in the light of their Screens, oblivious to the bird — absorbed into the rapt pleasure of his hunt only a few feet away.
Most of the kills are swift and ordinary, but moments of great drama come when the coup de grace is accomplished as the lanky bird sets its feet a little wider and leans out several inches off center to make a “catch” — every bit like a baseball short-stop, fearlessly off balance, hauling in a fast ground-level ball in the gap between first and second.
Finally, as the tension begins to ease and the last of the evening leaks away into night, the heron is discovered and briefly attacked by a flashing white seagull — threatened by a competitor’s superior skills.
The basin, until now a study in distant muted city-sounds, erupts into a grating verbal war of “kee” kee” kee” from the swooping gull — with each dive met by a resentful hissing “Geraawk! Geraawkkk!” from the now almost invisible heron who soon peevishly takes flight – to become a new wonderful airborne version of itself – legs perfectly trailing, straight neck, sleek body and wings silhouetted against the sky, turning, rising again, turning again, lifted into darkness on extended wings.
After dominating inland trade from about 1790 to 1840, the canals as a means of commercial transport were gradally eclipsed by the railroads until most boat traffic had ceased by the 1930’s. Almost all working boats have now disappeared from the cut as it is called, with some few remaining to haul gravel or sand mostly over short runs. However, the rise in “leisure boating” has brought some of the old 70′ working boats back into service as travelling vendors of fuel of many varieties — coal for stoves, propane for “cookers” and diesel for engines. These fuel boats generally work a certain stretch of a particular canal and have regular customers among those live-aboards with long term moorings. Or, as in our case, you hail a boat when we see it coming and need fuel. This particular boat travels back and forth on the Grand Union Canal from Berkhampsted to Leighton Buzzard (about 20 miles).
We’ve bought diesel from this crew three times now, and so know each other by sight — and there’s now a bit of joshing — they will laugh (and make faces) and say that they will sell to Americans, but, had we been Australian, that would have been a different matter entirely….. The man making faces did so because Valari had sincerely said he looked hard working — and that was too much for him to stand for what with his mates there and all.
Today we saw the boat coming up the canal our way and waved it over. We were just about to leave a lock, so the fuel mongers told us to stay in the lock to make coming alongside easier. No boats were coming either way and this worked very well (usually the boats need to be tied together mid-canal with someone on the fuel boat keeping both craft aligned with the cut and out of shallow water).
We took on 100 litres of “red diesel” (half our capacity) and the JCC fuel boat continued along toward Leighton Buzzard as we pulled over and moored up just below a renown pub in Marsworth.
It’s a good life.
There are sometimes moments when you do not know what to do with what you have just seen or been part of.
Recently we met Natalie and her live-in care-giver Michael on a Thames ferry. Natalie suffers from very limited vision, among many other things, and was captivated when Valari showed her images from an iPad which were big enough for Natalie to actually see and enjoy.
We talked with Natalie and Michael for some time and were honored with their openness and trust of people they didn’t know. They were on a day trip up and down the river — something that Natalie can manage and enjoy from her wheelchair. She has degenerative arthritis, and several other conditions, including a skin disease which has the arresting quality of making her face seem ageless. Natalie says her mother describes her as “looking like I’m 13”. The depth of her nearly sightless eyes was, for me, the only clue that Natalie is 35.
Her chair was comfortably placed at the front of the boat were Michael could sit close by and they could talk and she would not be bumped into, which is very painful.
After taking a few pictures, I sat down and talked with Natalie — bringing myself (for me) uncomfortably close to her face so she could see me and so we could hear each other over the boat noise.
We spoke about our lives and where we were going and what we had seen that day. Then she began talking about mobility as a big problem. I was somewhat surprised at this because in the UK it is much more common to see “disabled” people on public transport, or in the markets or along the streets. Natalie stunned me by saying that sometimes she is threatened or forced off buses by “kids” who resent her in some way and express it by making her expendable. She and Michael live in a lower income east London suburb and last week were taken off a bus when some one said: “We’ve got three buggies trying to get on but there’s no room! Get the fuckin’ chair off the bus, get the fuckin’ chair off so the mums can get on…!!!”
Why did I talk to her to begin with — curiosity? the photographer’s reflex? guilt at my own good fortune,? not wanting to ignore her like everyone else was?
It’s clear that many of us avoid engaging with “disabled” people because we immediately sense a host of these uncomfortable questions.
The best answer I have is that I probably sought out Natalie because of my own selfish human wish to make contact with another and guessed that she might be, by virtue of daily practice, more at ease than most of us with quickly getting to answering and asking the essential question: “who are you”?
In any case, it has me thinking about: why am I much more reticent to talk about real life with so many “normal” people?
I hope Natalie and Michael took something good away from our short time together — I am sure about that. I know she and the questions will stay with me.
Yesterday we, at last, managed to get together with our friend Chris whose taxi service has become our regular means of getting from Heathrow to the boat. After riding with him for a short while last year, we knew he was a special one and that we were happily moving into friendship beyond business.
Chris bought the taxi company about 10 years ago and has turned it into a thriving enterprise with nine driver’s. That said, it does not appear to be making him a fortune because each driver keeps all his fares and pays all his expenses. The former company was primarily a luxury chauffeur service, outfitted primarily with Rolls Royces. Chris now has just one Rolls which they keep for weddings, while most driving is done my modern cars like Skoda or a large 8 passenger Vauxhall van. Chris’s clients are primarily executives visiting the UK and boaters needing rides to his friend’s Wyvern Shipping Company, a canal hireboat service in Leighton Buzzard, which is how we met last October. He does also serve as de facto chauffeur for a duke as Chris says, “it’s “Your Grace” when he has others with him, but, when were alone, I bloody well call him Peter and he calls me Chris”).
Chris (our age) is married to Pamela (probably 10 years older than Chris and native of Zimbabwe , formerly Rhodesia). They met in the early 1980’s when she was on holiday in London and have two gorgeous daughters and two equally stunning granddaughters.
Chris and Pamela live in a modest and relatively recent (1980’s) part of the Milton Keynes in Buckinghameshire. They picked us up in his beloved Skoda sedan at the Nag’s Head Pub, near our mooring beside the church in Great Linford.
After lunch, Chris and I took their dog “Pickles” for a long circuitous walk through their neighbourhood — which, surprisingly, contained a large verdant park area and a small river winding through two small lakes constructed as part of the development, but now looking quite natural. Vestiges of the past are somehow seamlessly integrated into the modern. For example, below a primary school , the path over the river crosses a short bridge of huge flat stones dating back to Roman times.
Pickles is a Jack Russell terrier of approximately 16 years and a “rescue dog”, as I think every dog I’ve met here has been. Age notwithstanding, Pickles strained against her lead until we were safely across the road and into a nearby park where Chris unsnapped her lead and let her bound ahead, sniffing at mysterious scents and proving herself an indefatigable pisser equal to any male; anointing reed and bush and path and flower with quick intensity. I think, on our way back home. she was actually discovering and remaking her own “spots…”
Soon after we crossed the stones, Chris and Pickles and I met a young mahogany-skinned man and his shy pixy-like three year old daughter. Something clicked in Chris (later he said it was the man’s accent) and after the usual greetings Chris asked where the man was from. He replied “Zimbabwe, sir!” It turns out he was born in the same town as Pamela (although years apart — Pamela is in her 70’s). The man “Lukka” immediately began talking about how he longed to return to Zimbabwe and “fight for my land” saying: “the British came along and said “here’s how you can fix your problem (the end of Rhodesia and rise of Robert Mugabe): change your country — become a South African!”. So, Lukka did this and, also using the fact that his grandfather was Scottish, he and his Lithuanian wife move to the UK in 2002, where their daughter was later born.
As the daughter skipped ahead, Lukka began talking more and more passionately about his wish to regain his land, but “look at my daughter, being in England means food for my daughter — you see sir?” I did, I I also saw with a stab of sadness that his eyes were bleary and bloodshot and that very likely he was drunk or on drugs of some sort. “If was just me I would go fight –I would fight — a man must fight for his home!! You see, sir?” he asked me.
We parted when the daughter wanted to stay and watch a pair of nesting swans by the lake while Chris and I, it turns out, had miles to go… Soon, coming toward us on the path was a colourful threesome — a fifty-ish woman, a much older woman, probably her mother, and a Jack Russell terrier on a lead. The older woman was walking with the aid of a pair of those canes that have extensions and arm cradles for stability. At a range of about 10 yards, Pickles (not on a lead) launched forward to engage the enemy and soon the path was a chaos of noise and maneuverings as Pickles charged at the other Jack Russell — barking but not biting — and the assembled group of dogs and people began a slow circular dance of loud hostility — with Chris shouting for Pickles to “heel” meanwhile assuring the women that Pickles would do no harm — with the rival terrier’s master shouting: “Yeah — well this one will bloody well KILL your dog”. Meanwhile mother swung into action, loosing her wrist crutches and attempting to strike Pickles as our terrible ensemble rotated slowly on the path.
It was over almost as quickly as it began with Pickles being caught by Chris and snapped back onto his lead. The women collected themselves and the groups parted quickly with downward glances — not another word being spoken. In the sudden silence it was an inexplicably British moment.
Today I met Bob Nightingale a blacksmith of forty years who runs his shop just near the entrance to the Blisworth Tunnel. Bob is an honest man with honest stories to tell — and he will tell them to you until your ears fall off….
He’s the sort of relentless raconteur that part of you wants to immediately escape — but the other part is fascinated with. I chose to listen, and an hour later was a wiser and better man.
Bob knows his place. He knows that he is one of the few carrying on an age-old tradition of personal pride in craft and excellence. He is the modern maker of all things that only a blacksmith can make. Once these things were nails, hinges, plow blades, lock plates and tolls of all variety — now they are custom arrow tips for the elite who seek to become one of “The Queen’s 100”, the finest archers in Britain who are part of HM’s personal guard( if she ever goes to war) and swords for competitors in horse mounted competitions that require striking 6 targets in 180 yards at a full gallop. Bob also makes more pedestrian gear like two-prong tips for narrowboat “boat hooks” and small scale fireplace tools for boat stoves — and coat hooks and candle stands for the tourists. He has had eight apprentices who spend a year just learning how to work the forge and the hammer — before they can move on learning to create with iron and steel.
Last week Bob went back and made a sewing needle at the forge — just to be sure that he still could do it.
Bob will tell you that his coke-fired forge will heat to 5,000 degrees and that a real blacksmith with land 7,000 blows with his hammer in an average day. He has been asked often to make Damascus steel blades. but rarely does when the customers learn that it takes three months to forge the billet from which a blade will emerge. He says that a King’s sword would take one man one year to create. Yes — think — “Game of Thrones”.
Bob has a son who is an accomplished gunsmith who makes specialised rifles for the elite of Britain’s sniper core. The son works at an undisclosed location where there are many people who do not want to be known or named go to get “fitted” for individually crafted weapons — including large-bore sniper rifles designed for a helicopter mounted prone platform. These guns are currently used by Britain in the effort against Somali pirates which requires a very heavy and accurate bullet that can penetrate the pirate boat engines.
Bob showed me a photograph that he had accidentally taken into the sun which he believes reveals the existence of our solar system’s “missing planet” that has an orbital cycle of 3,000 years, moving perpendicular to the rest of the planetary orbits.
By now I am edging toward the door with my boat hook tip in hand, and wishing him well in the continuation of his craft — and hoping that his uniquely wonderful British eccentricity will also be carried on by other fearless story tellers.
I returned just in time to arrive back at the boat and find a gaggle of primary school kids and their teachers admiring “Stardust” — so we ended up inviting them to walk through the boat, including our 19″ telly. They were exceedingly polite, fascinated with the toilets and as thrilled as a bunch of chattering birds to be on a real narrowboat! Who knew we would become a tourist attraction so soon?
Upon leaving one young girl solemnly asked: “are you sad because you have such a small TV?”