Bullock Battles And Sainsbury Silliness

I’m back on my Calcutt Boats mooring now following my two months cruising break. Not that I managed to do any cruising. I moved less than a mile a day during my sixty-day holiday thanks to Lockdown 3.0. I couldn’t complain. I moored for weeks at a time, far from the stresses and strains of modern-day life.

I chose the quietest place I could find for my final three weeks, three miles away from the nearest shop and the place I chose for collecting my weekly Sainsbury grocery order. My last collection was memorable for all the wrong reasons.

I considered cruising into Braunston to collect my groceries, then decided against it when I saw the broken ice patches’ thickness. My boat had been trapped by two inches of ice for five days. I had enough capacity in my remaining cassette to last another night, so I decided to show some consideration for my hull blacking, leave Orient stationery and walk into Braunston to collect my Sainsbury order.

I ambled along the muddy towpath, basking in the weak spring sun. I dillied, and I dallied on my way to The Boathouse car park for my grocery appointment, arriving with ten minutes to spare. A few minutes before the start of my hour slot, my phone rang. ‘I’m stuck outside your gate with your delivery,’ a lady told me in broken English. I couldn’t understand why she was at a closed gate when The Boathouse car park is gate-free. Then, because I have a mind like a razor, I deduced that she was outside Calcutt Boats’ main gates in Stockton instead of where she should have been in Braunston.

I tried to explain to the driver that she was in the wrong place. She didn’t understand me. I told her to cancel the order. I couldn’t collect my food from Stockton if I was stuck in Braunston without transport. This wasn’t at all like the efficiency I was used to from Sainsbury.

I was frustrated and a little pissed off. I phoned Sainsbury’s customer service department and complained about their rare but annoying system failure. I explained in tedious detail the effort I had put into reaching the delivery point. My six-mile return journey would take two hours, I told the poor guy listening to me. Sainsbury had let me down, and I wasn’t happy. I wanted the unfortunate customer service guy to appease me with a swift resolution.

The patient man tried to reason with me. He offered to reroute the van and try to deliver my groceries to the correct address later in the evening. I pointed out to him that I was three miles from my home, standing in a windswept pub car park. He apologised for the inconvenience and promised to credit my account with ten pounds.

Despite feeling let down, I tried to make the most of the situation. I climbed a hill to Braunston’s convenience store to buy something for my evening meal. I decided to’ spend’ my Sainsbury voucher and treat myself to a steak and a decent bottle of wine. I filled my basket with other groceries while I was there too. I decided that I might as well fill my rucksack with food from Braunston if I couldn’t get any from Sainsbury’s delivery driver. I selected food for the next couple of days, paid and hauled my basked outside the shop to load my rucksack.

My phone rang again. A cheerful man declared that he was waiting in The Boathouse car park with my delivery. I was confused. Surely Sainsbury wouldn’t reroute a delivery van just for me? I wanted to know how the driver had driven from Stockton to Braunston so quickly and why he had changed from a woman to a man. I said as much to him, which is probably why he laughed nervously and hung up.

I waddled as quickly as I could with my heavy rucksack, half a mile from the village centre to the pub, puffing, panting and wondering what on Earth was happening. Then the truth hit me like a bolt of lightning.  I checked my phone and confirmed that the original phone call had come from Amazon and not Sainsbury’s. I had managed to cancel an Amazon delivery at the marina and complain about the non-delivery of an order waiting for me in a Braunston pub car park. What a cock up.

I apologised to the Sainsbury driver who was waiting patiently for me in the pub car park, shoehorned a week’s groceries into my rucksack on top of my Braunston shopping and staggered three miles back to my boat.

I had just enough strength left for a second call to Sainsbury’s customer services department, this time to apologise rather than complain. The man I spoke to was so pleased to hear a rare apology that he insisted that I keep the £10 voucher. Sometimes honesty pays!

My confused mind often encourages me to make decisions that don’t end well. With very little interest to tell you about my last few weeks on the cut, let me tell you about one of those catastrophic cockups from 2015.

I left my job at Calcutt Boats in April that year to live the life of a carefree continuous cruiser. I dashed hither and thither like an unrestrained child in a shop filled with open sweet jars. I wanted to cruise every canal on the network, tick off all ‘must see’ inland waterways sights and generally wear myself into the ground.

Seven hundred miles into my cruising year, I nervously shut Duke’s Cut lock gate behind me and crept through a winding channel onto the mighty River Thames. I was relieved to discover that during a dry spell in mid-July, the Thames wasn’t as intimidating as I expected… until I reached Eynsham Lock.

I waxed lyrical about the river’s tranquillity as I handed over a wad of cash for my seven day Thames license. The portly middle-aged lock keeper offered me some peculiar advice. ‘You need to be careful if you’re going as far as Lechlade.’ He pointed at the colourful flower basket on my gas locker lid. ‘That’s a mid-morning snack for the bullocks there. There isn’t a fence between them and Lechlade’s riverside moorings. They’ll eat your flowers and chew your mooring lines. They’ll try your cratch cover too if they can get hold of it.’ I dismissed the lock keeper’s advice as a typical and harmless attempt at winding up a Thames virgin.

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I began to worry a little when I received the same advice at Pinkhill Lock half an hour later. Either these two lock keepers had a mischievous streak, or my Lechlade stay might not be quite as relaxed as I hoped. I decided to err on the side of caution and hide my flowers.

Paranoia had set in by the time I reached St John’s and the final short leg to Lechlade three days later.’ Yes, I know about the bullocks,’ I assured the lock keeper as I carried my flower basket to my rear deck and gently lowered it onto the deck boards covering my old Mercedes engine. I knew so much about the frisky cowlings that the thought of mooring anywhere near Lechlade worried me senseless.

I could see a dozen of them on the far side of a vast meadow as James slipped over shallow mud to reach the river bank. I hammered a couple of mooring pins into the sun-baked ground, made sure that anything remotely edible was stored out of sight and walked into Lechlade to replenish my dwindling food supply.

I returned an hour later to a worrying sight. I was moored at the tail end of a four narrowboat row. Bovine admirers obscured their cabin sides as they licked, nibbled and tugged at ropes and canopies. One bullock plucked a canvas sun hat from a cabin roof, worrying it like a dog with a bone.

Three of the enormous beasts focussed on my floating home; one nibbled my braid-on-braid bow mooring line, another licked my side hatch cover, while a third explored my stern with its basket of hidden flowers.

I gave the nearest a gentle slap. The baby bull twitched its ample rump and continued its inedible meal. Talking to them quietly was equally ineffective. My best John Wayne cattle-driving howl provoked a response, but only from two giggling American tourists who gazed in wonder at a slice of eccentric English country life.

I left the determined bullocks to their grazing, climbed into my cabin and worried. I knew that I wasn’t going to sleep that night. I was sure that nightmares of four-footed horned demons would haunt me, so I devised a cunning plan.

A barbed-wire fence dipped into the river behind our field-side moorings. There was a rough bank behind it, just long enough for me to moor if I could get close enough to the river bank to jump ashore. I would need to hold my heavy home against the offshore breeze while I found a way of securing twenty tonnes of steel to the hardened clay bank. I knew that it would be hard work. Still, if I could get in there, I would be safe from bullocky nighttime forays.

My boat sped away from the bank as soon as I untied my mooring lines. The wind was stronger than I expected. I knew that I would get one chance to tie up on my cow-safe mooring before the wind pushed my home into the river centre. Forward planning was critical if I wanted to avoid the embarrassing sight of my boat sailing off without me.

I pushed my boat into the new mooring’s bank-side mud and threw my stern over to join it. I leapt four feet onto the high bank armed with my centre line, two mooring pins and a lump hammer. I could feel my centre line tightening as soon as I landed. Before I could tie my bow and stern lines to nearby trees, I needed to secure my centre line to stop James from drifting out of reach. I dropped my centre line, stood on it with both feet, grabbed one of the two steep pins and hammered it into the hard clay for all I was worth.

The rock hard ground defeated me. After a dozen hard blows, I had done little more than dent the solid clay. My frustration grew as I felt my centre line slipping beneath my feet. I hit the pin as hard as I could once, twice… nothing. After a third enormous whack, half the pin disappeared. Another hit, and it was in all the way to its head. Perfect, I thought, until the first few wasps of an angry swarm circled my head.

My centre line slipped a little further, allowing my boat to drift six feet away from the bank. I was out of options. I had to ignore the wasps, move a couple of feet away from their nest and try again. The swarm wasn’t at all happy. I felt a jab like a blunt needle in my left ear, another in my chin, more on my exposed arms. Reacting to a calf sting, I jerked one foot away from my centre line, and my home slipped further out of reach.

After what felt like a lifetime of hammering and excruciating fresh stings, I banged two pins in far enough to secure my centre line. Then I waded into the river, first at my stern and then again at my bow to retrieve my mooring lines and secured them to nearby trees. I climbed onto my back deck, my body a mass of pain and angry red swelling.

But the ordeal was behind me. I was safe from stinging wasps and destructive cows.I climbed into my cabin and heated the remainder of the previous day’s stew, opened my last bottle of red and poured half of it into a goldfish bowl goblet.

Antiseptic cream relived some of the pain. Half a pint of Wolf Blass dulled the rest. I began to relax and think about the quiet night ahead. That was when my cabin lurched suddenly towards the river and my evening meal and the rest of my wine crashed to the floor.

I didn’t have a clue what was happening. I could hear unfamiliar thuds coming from my stern, so I staggered through my tilting cabin to the back of the boat to determine the reason for my list.

Remember my crafty plan for keeping my flower basket out of harm’s way? In my hurry to treat my stings, I had left my rear doors open. That wouldn’t be a problem on any other occasion. On the day from hell, though, fate had other ideas.

My four-legged tormentors had walked down the muddy riverbank and into the Thames. Walking around the end of the barbed wire fence wasn’t a problem for such tall animals. The lead bullock didn’t have a problem either when it faced a further obstacle between him and a tasty treat. He reared up, placed his two forelegs on my back deck and leaned forward into my engine room to reach my flowers. That’s what caused my list. Narrowboat sterns aren’t meant to accommodate half-tonne bullocks.

I’m not proud of what I did next. I was in agony. Even though the antiseptic cream covering my body helped, each of my fourteen wasp stings throbbed painfully. My evening meal was slipping through my floorboards into the cabin bilge, and the remains of an expensive bottle of red dripped off galley cupboards and pooled on the floor like a prop from a horror movie. I was uncomfortable, hungry, thirsty, and, most of all, angry, so angry that I punched the bullock hard on the nose.

I didn’t want to harm him, but I wanted him off my boat. He’d destroyed my flower basket and scraped my back deck back to bare metal with the edges of his jagged hooves. Using brute force to get the poor animal off my boat worked but, quite rightly, backfired.

The bullock leapt backwards to get away from me, removing the substantial weight which held my boat down. The stern shot up, I slipped in a pool of rear deck bullock water and fell headfirst into the riverside reeds.

I waded from the river covered in rotting vegetation. I watched the flower-eating bullock stroll towards the front of my boat and chew contentedly on my bow line. I knew I was beaten. I untied my mooring lines, allowed the wind to push me into the river centre and chugged slowly through the fading light to St John’s lock. I moored on the lock landing that night and dreamed about garland-wearing wasps riding bullocks into a victorious battle against stupid narrowboat owners.

Discovery Day Update

There’s a bright light at the end of the pandemic’s long, dark tunnel. The inland waterways will awake on 12th April when both hire and private narrowboats will again cruise our river and canal network. That’s when I’ll resume my service too.

Because I was obliged to reschedule all my March bookings, and because of the increase in staycations and remote working has raised the inland waterways’ profile, my Discovery Day calendar has filled quickly. I have just one date left in May and four in June. I have plenty of dates available from July onwards. If you want to secure an early summer break, I suggest you think about booking now. 

You can find out more about my Discovery Day service here and view and book my available dates here.

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Paul Smith

After six and a half years living on a narrowboat on England's inland waterways, Paul and his wife Cynthia wandered Europe by motorhome during the winter, and on the Dutch and French waterways in the warmer months on their 35' Dutch motor cruiser. However, the pull of England's muddy ditches proved too much for them. Now they're back where they belong, constantly stuck in mud in a beautiful traditional narrowboat.