SIXTEEN - "On Top Of My World - Ripon"
I needed to get on. Since setting off from Abingdon on 21st March my aim had been to get to Ripon, it being, arguably until the Lancaster Canal is fully open, as far north as one can get on the connected inland waterways of England. Sitting in York I was but a couple of days away from Ripon. I sensed in me a reluctance to get there. I knew what I’d be doing after Ripon, which was to cross England on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and meet my cousin and his family in Liverpool; they live there. However, in my mind I saw that as part of the return journey and, as with any return journey, the end would become increasingly close. I didn’t want that.
Maybe that is why I took a boat trip in York before setting off for Ripon! The excellent YorkBoat pleasure craft ply their trade in and around York. During my time in York I had FRILFORD tied up close to Lendal Bridge where there is a jetty, one of the ones from which YorkBoat operate. All day every day, and in the evenings, when trips are accompanied by flashing lights and the usual thumping disco music which never goes away (do the Rolling Stones really get a royalty every time some jobbing, and uninspired, DJ plays Brown Sugar? I suppose they do), the smart red boats load hoards of excited passengers and set off for various locations. It looks like a very efficient and well-run operation with, amongst others, smiling young women either clasping clipboards and relieving passengers of their money, or crewing the boats, or indeed, in more than one case, skippering the boats.
The young woman with clipboard to whom I spoke laughed at the idea that I was stepping off my own boat to step straight on to one of her’s. “Are you checking up on us?” she joked. I told her I was happy to sit back in the sun whilst someone else did the driving. And I’m glad I did. A smiling blond woman, speaking broad Yorkshire, skippered us on a very pleasant trip down to the Bishop’s Palace at Bishopthorpe and back, all the while telling us about what turned out to be her home city. York has a fascinating history in that it seems to have been a place of importance throughout. The Romans founded a centre in the area as far back as AD71. The place, which became Eboracum, was the capital of what was thought of as lower England. Later, as Eoferwic it was the chief city for the Anglo-Saxon King Edwin of Nurthumbria and two centuries later the Vikings settled and their city of Jorvik became an important trading centre.
The place was ruled for the next two hundred years or so first by a line of Danish kings and by local earls, many of whom were descended from Scandinavian invaders. The Norwegians invaded in 1065-66 and were defeated at Stamford Bridge by King Harold II of England. However, the Normans were threatening on the south coast and King Harold force marched his battle-weary men several hundred miles to Hastings where, later in 1066 (a date known to even the dullest of schoolboys – me being one!), they were defeated by the Norman William the Conqueror. William arrived in York in 1069 to quash a local rebellion and was ruthless. His scorched-earth policy was recorded in The Domesday Book, William's census of 1086, which recorded that 'there was not a blade of grass between the Rivers Trent and Tweed'. One wonders, therefore, what might have happened had King Harold II not had to force march his men first north to York, then south to Hastings. I have a number of good Norwegian friends and have enjoyed many visits to that fine country. However, had their ancestors not come invading in 1065 I might not be the first-born son of a woman with a Norman French maiden name? Supposing Harold had met William at Hastings with an army of fresh men and had beaten William and seen him off. What then, I wonder?
My personal history is tied up with York some more – although this really is a bit silly. Terry's Confectionery Works is in York, or it was: the place closed recently and is being converted, inevitably, into luxury apartments. A long time ago, long before meeting my father, my mother stepped out a couple of times with a man who worked for Terry’s. Used to bring her boxes of Terry’s chocolates, apparently. My mother’s mother was rather fed up when the friendship did not develop further – the chocs were most welcome it seems! We used to pull Mother’s leg about it. And Father’s! He clearly had other attractions, but he did not have the chocs. My mother’s mother used to remind him of that at Christmas! Had the relationship developed might I have been born a Yorkshireman, perhaps. Could I have coped with all that apologising? It seems to be a facet of the proud Yorkshire folk, and they have a lot to be proud of it’s true, that they apologise for being Yorkshire. Not directly of course – exactly the opposite in fact. How many times have we heard a son of that fine county make some rather abrupt comment then say something to the effect of “I know that’s blunt but I’m from Yorkshire and I’m not going to apologise for that…” Except that they just have, of course…!
Enough of that and enough York history. Suffice it to say that York is one of the most attractive cities in which I have had the pleasure to spend a few days and I urge anyone who has not been to take the time to go. I got back from my boat trip and history lesson by early afternoon. The day was sunny and clear and the River Ouse beckoned to me from under the Scarborough Rail and Footbridge. It was time to go.
I waved goodbye to the enjoyable couple on the Dutch barge with whom I had enjoyed the odd beer and pointed my bows towards Ripon. The River Ouse is attractive if slightly unwelcoming. Attractive because it has wide smooth tree lined water along which it is easy to navigate. Slightly unwelcoming because of the nature its banks and the path it cuts through the countryside. Above Naburn it is no longer tidal but like its tidal sibling it has cut a deep channel in the flat land through which it passes. The banks are steep and there is little or nothing to see of the surrounding countryside. Indeed, aside from the odd village, which anyway keep themselves modestly hidden from the river, there is little in the way of things to see. What is now farmland sits in or on ancient Ings – an Old English word for low-lying land, near water or, indeed, the coast, which provide either rich farmland or a wonderful habitat for wildlife – but this is obscured from view by both the steep banks and, in many places, the trees thereon. The only time this might be a problem is if the engine were to break down. There’s nowhere particular to moor. I was not much concerned. I’d found the almost-ruptured cooling water pipe whilst at Naburn and my repair was holding up well. Not ‘holding up’ in fact: just done! As I moved Ripon-wards I had the throttle quite well open and FRILFORD was bounding along at between five and six miles an hour. Lively speed for one normally canal borne. I was unaware, as yet, of the error of maintenance I’d made and the ever-present possibility that I was damaging the engine – that was to come…
I was aware of some juddering from the tiller and I wanted to check any fouling on the propeller. Like all inland waterways the canals and rivers have a certain amount of rubbish in them, plastic bags being some of the most obtrusive and potentially hazardous to a motor boater, and checking the propeller for fouling is something one needs to do on a regular basis. I should have done it before now. Indeed I know of people who check their prop about once a week. I was not aware of any particular problem but I did wonder if there was something round the prop as the prop wash was a bit exaggerated and there was the judder from the tiller. Like other boats, narrowboats have a thing called a weed hatch. The top of the weed hatch is sealed with a hatch cover which is screwed down. On FRILFORD the weed hatch is abaft the engine underneath the after deck. Indeed it is under my feet when I am standing on the after deck steering FRILFORD. However, the only time I tried to get at it, it took me about twenty minutes to remove various steps, boxes and bits of deck and then I could not get the hatch cover off. Defeated I put everything back, convinced myself, correctly at the time, I am sure, that there was nothing round the prop and continued on my way. Now I felt I needed to get at the prop, but I was not prepared to go through the same palaver. The surveyor who inspected FRILFORD for me before I bought her commented on this and suggested I get a second hatch cut in the after deck so I could get at the weed hatch from outside. I didn’t but can certainly see why what is a good idea.
At Nun Monkton, about ten miles upstream of York, the River Ouse makes a significant turn to the right, due north near enough, opposite the mouth of the small River Nidd which wends its way to the south from here. There is a large pool at this point and many boats motor up from York at the weekend and people enjoy a day of lolling about on deck with ice-chinking drinks all around. There is a large sandy bank rising gently to the trees above which has formed just on the bend where, as I passed, a family had beached a hire boat and were having a barbecue at the water’s edge. All very nice, and it gave me an idea. The day was calm, with what wind there was high in the trees and above the river banks thus not disturbing things at water level, the sun was shining and the water was warm. ‘If there is another such ‘beach’ around here, and I get the chance, I shall run FRILFORD aground, go over the side and check the prop’ I thought to myself. Within half a mile just such a beach hove into view.
There was rather a lot of weed about, in fact, but I could see the bottom and it was clear and clean. I slipped FRILFORD into reverse and gently backed her towards the shore. I did not let her go aground in the event and when she was floating in no more than about two or so feet of water (she draws just over two feet so she had about six or seven inches of water beneath her) I cut the engine, stripped down to my boxers, stuck a serrated knife between my teeth and jumped over the side. Yes – it was very Errol Flynn and left the few cattle that appeared out of nowhere to watch the proceedings stunned into static wonderment, their appreciation of my efforts shown in their usual way: cud chewing and cowpat-making.
I was right, there was stuff round the prop – at least round the prop shaft. The propeller blades were pretty much unimpeded but around the shaft there was a tight knot of plastic bags, various colours of bailer twine and some bits of wire. The water was so clear that I did not need to actually dive under the boat (I’d’ve wanted more water for that – “Itinerant Boater Dies Trapped Under Own Boat” was not a headline I’d’ve wanted anyone to see and anyway, even Errol would have got someone else to do that bit…) so feeling about with my knife and making a few careful cuts I was soon able to clear the prop of all encumbrances. By now the slight breeze had picked up FRILFORD’s bows and she was turning gently back the way we’d come, so it was time to sort myself and FRILFORD out and get underway again. I was soon back into my clothes and firing up the engine. FRILFORD turned neatly in the width of the river and within moments we were making our way towards Linton Lock once again. The cattle remained unmoved, although one managed a short bovine moan which I took to be an appreciative farewell. As I noted in my logbook that evening FRILFORD did not go any faster post-heroics (the water was still quite shallow and it was possible to whip up unwelcome and frowned-upon breaking quarter waves very easily) but she slid along, judderless, like a boat-shaped bar of soap on a well polished tile!
Linton Lock is pretty damned deep (Nicholson Guide does not say how deep, but it is deep) and is situated next to a large weir. As I approached a man on the lock waved at me to keep coming and opened the gates for me. I got into the lock and, as so often happens, when he realised I was singlehanded suggested I stay on board whilst he worked the lock. Our yelled conversation (I was way below him and the open sluices were letting in tons of water rather noisily) established that he was not some sort of relief lockkeeper but a chap who’d come through on a narrowboat, with his wife, about an hour ago and was moored on the pontoon just the other side of the lock. He was sitting at the lock taking in the view and as I approached busied himself, naturally, as is the way with narrowboating, with working the lock for me. This sort of amiable pleasantness is a marque of narrowboating, it seems, but never ceases to surprise and delight me.
I took his lead and tied up behind him on the pontoon. I would have offered him and his wife a drink on board, but another marque of narrowboating is that one does not intrude. After another few minutes of pleasantries we parted company, he to his boat, me to mine, and by the time I got up in the morning and set off for the final push to Ripon, he and his boat were already gone. In truth I did see them again briefly, tied up in Boroughbridge for food shopping, where I too stopped to get fuel and water, but otherwise that was it.
The final push to Ripon was a full, but pleasingly uneventful, day. The River Ouse ‘becomes’ the River Ure just above Linton Lock. I write ‘becomes’ because I can’t find a definition as to what is going on. There is nothing for the itinerant boater to notice and Nicholson’s Guide only states rather blandly that “The River Ure receives the name Ouse at this point” (it is written as for a boater coming downstream from Ripon.) Thereafter there is the junction with the River Swale, which one does not take for it is not practically navigable and which one is prevented from taking by a large, slightly incongruous ‘road sign’ standing prominently at the junction. All Craft one way and a no entry sign the other!
Milby Lock, another big one, lay on the River Ure between me and Boroughbridge, where I was to stop for fuel and water, and was a bit of a struggle singlehanded. A small gaggle of teenage girls were sunning themselves by the bottom gates as I struggled with them, and whilst they smiled and muttered a small greeting as I passed they were too engrossed in discussing the various text messages they had received, all the while waving some very fancy looking mobile phones around, to notice me slightly daunted. Whenever I find myself climbing out of a lock up a small metal ladder, with the centre line tucked in the belt of my trousers because there is not enough scope on the rope to stay topsides when I throw it up, the lock being too deep, I know I have a bit of a job on! FRILFORD seemed such a long way down when I got to the top. I was a little frustrated by the man and his dog. They’d stopped to look at FRILFORD in the bottom of the lock, said hello to me, the man, not the dog, then went to the river just the other side of the top gates. Knowing I had the sluices open to fill the lock the man shouted the ubiquitous “Fetch boy…!” and threw a stick in the water for the dog to swim to. Which it did – right next to the lock gates. I closed the sluices as fast as I could and suggested to the man that either I wait for his dog to have a swim or he wait for me to finish in the lock before letting the dog swim, otherwise the dog was going to get sucked into the lock, drowned, and we’d all have a bad day! “No; don’t you stop,“ he replied, oblivious to the situation, “I’ve gotta get back” and walked off. The dog, and you can’t make this up, rushed up to me, soaking wet and with stick in mouth, wanting to continue the game. I wasn’t playing.. The overly-excited mutt shook the water off – all over me! A “Here boy!” came from down the field behind the hedgerow and the dog was gone. You’ve got to laugh… but I didn’t!
In Boroughbridge I achieved the Golden Triangle. I might have mentioned this before but a Golden Triangle doesn’t happen very often so it is quite satisfying when it does. Have a care though – we are not talking about anything significant, although it has a certain pleasure to it when on the water. On board FRILFORD and for me, at least, a Golden Triangle is when the water tank forward is completely full, the diesel tank aft is completely full, and the slurry (sewerage) tank amidships is completely empty! The garage at Boroughbridge has a British Waterways sanitary station and water point at the same mooring so I was able to get everything done. The slurry tank pumps out via a pipe out through the roof. British Waterways have pumpout stations at various places along the Cut into which one puts a prepaid card. This was one such. I find them very good. Indeed, I like the idea of having a slurry tank. All very straightforward. Fill it up in the usual way – pump it out when required. It holds a couple of hundred gallons so one is not pumping out too often. Depends how many people there are on board and how excited they are, of course! I do know of people who won’t have a slurry tank on their boat, preferring a form of Porta Potti set up, with little cassette tanks which one has to separate from the seat part. Carry through the boat and take to a disposal point (or ordinary loo, of course) to empty (Father has one on his boat so I do know about them…). One sees such people marching down the towpath carrying these things like executive suitcases. They are not very big so require frequent emptying. I know of one person, and so there must be many others, who goes to some lengths to avoid having to empty the cassette on their boat. When I was on board I was advised to pee in the sink (“so easy for boys - save the tank”) and she, for she is a she, later informed me that the jug beside the loo was so she could pee in the jug and pour it down the sink. Her eighty-something year old mother had been staying on her boat recently. It was her mother who’d come up with the jug idea! Another boat I know of has some sort of composting, compacting unit on board which seems to use air rather than water, or something. I tried it. All a bit too inappropriately high tec for me, I’m afraid. Didn’t understand it, especially as the next day brought a “we have to empty a cassette because we’ve let ourselves fill up two and we don’t have a spare now” crisis developed just before breakfast the next day. Big tank on the boat: fill it up and pump it out sometime later: that’s what I say!
I mention all this because when I returned from sailing round the world by far the most frequently-asked question was “How did you live on board? I mean, how did you sleep? how did you cook? what did you eat and how did you manage for…well, you know….?!” On FRILFORD that’s how I deal with ‘you know…’ and as for cooking and eating, I cook on a four burner gas stove with grill oven below. I carry two 13 kg bottles of propane gas (which cost about £13 each) in a dedicated forward gas locker and each one lasts about four months, which I reckon is pretty good going. I only use it for cooking, not for heating. Heat on FRILFORD is provided by an oversized solid fuel stove with a back boiler which heats a radiator in the after end, where I sleep. The boat gets far too hot when I have it on, but I can fling open bow, stern and side doors to get rid of the heat, and I’d sooner have it that way than the opposite. I’d hate to be cold on board, and am not! The engine provides hot water and I have an emersion heater in the hot water tank for when I am hitched up to shore electrical power, which I rarely am. Oh, and I eat whatever I want, when I want to!
Anyway – enough. I set off from Boroughbridge and was immediately reminded that one must always be careful when messing about with boats and water, especially together. What they were looking for, or whether they found it, I don’t know, but not one but two teams of drysuited divers were moving up and down the river in two large official-looking RIBs. Every so often they’d pull into the trees and reeds on both banks to prod about with a large net and some stout poles. I slowed down and gave them a discreet wave. All were very serious looking although one of them did nod in reply whilst giving me a long look. Were they looking for a body? I assume they were.
The River Ure continued as a lovely, attractive, smooth strip of tree lined water and FRILFORD, free from the constraints of coloured bailer twine and plastic, slipped along beautifully. Before long Westwick Lock hove into view and a couple who’d just come through it and were tied up on the lay-by berth, kindly opened the gates for me. I’d last seen them in Naburn, where they’d been having engine trouble. They have a canal-dimensions (i.e. narrow) GRP cruiser (known by many on the Cut as a Yogurt Pot, I understand!) rather than a steel narrowboat, so they are quite distinctive. They were returning from Ripon and were pleased that their engine seemed now to be performing. I rather hoped they might lock me through, but having opened and closed the bottom gates for me, they wished me well and went back to their boat. Fair enough – I am the last person to presume anything of anyone.
Beyond Westwick Lock the river looks absolutely beautiful, made all the more so by Newby Hall and its grounds on its northern bank. The Newby Hall website tells me things I once knew, i.e. that “Newby Hall, the family home of Mr & Mrs Richard Compton, is one of England's renowned Adam houses and an exceptional example of 18th century interior decoration. Built in the 1690s in the style of Sir Christopher Wren the house was later enlarged and adapted by John Carr and subsequently Robert Adam. The superb contents of the house, collected by Weddell, ancestor of the Compton family, on the Grand Tour include the magnificent Gobelins Tapestry Room, a renowned gallery of classical statuary and some of Chippendale’s finest furniture. The House also boasts a rather unusual collection of chamber pots! The 25 acres of glorious (Award Winning) gardens are full of rare and beautiful plants including the National Collection of CORNUS. Newby’s famous double herbaceous borders, amongst the longest in Europe, form the main axis, off which are numerous formal, compartmented gardens. Amongst others there is a species Rose Garden, a Water Garden, an Autumn Garden, even a Tropical Garden here in North Yorkshire!”
I used to know this because my old school friend Rupert (I am changing names here) used to be the Opening Co-ordinator, or something, for the place, and I remember once coming up for the weekend from Abingdon, with other friends, and having a high old time around the house and grounds. I mention this because a highlight, for me, of my arrival in Ripon, was to be seeing Rupert again. I’d been at his wedding some twenty-something years ago, so had met his wife Caroline (name change) briefly, but, despite his subsequent protestations to the contrary, had not seen him since, and certainly had not met his family. The ubiquitous Christmas cards had passed between us, mine always a typed impersonal ‘round robin’, his always a hand written personal letter, mine always full of generic bland reportage, his always full of very personal news, some of which brought with them challenges, for him and his family, which would be the breaking of lesser people. I was a little nervous of our meeting, and even had a period of time when I convinced myself I’d not recognise him, particularly walking down a canal towpath and thus out of context, as it were. I needn’t have worried, of course. Our meeting again after all this time was a picture of English reserved awkwardness. Handshakes, comments about the weather, “how are you?” asked too many times – and great joy: for me at least! Then champagne – I’d kept a special bottle! But more of that another time.
With Newby Hall disappearing over my right shoulder I was looking for the junction with the Ripon Canal just before Oxclose Lock. Another narrowboat passed me going the other way and we exchanged friendly waves. Then there was the junction and another ‘road sign’. Good job too for the River Ure swings majestically, but unnavigably, to the right and north and the cut through to the Ripon Canal is damned small!
In Oxclose Lock I met Julie, the British Waterways staffer for the Ripon Canal. She was painting the lock which afforded me to comment to her how well the various locks I’d come through were looking. She was pleased and thanked me. I think working on the canals can be a bit of a thankless task, which is a pity, for my experience is that the British Waterways people one meets on the Cut are good people who work hard and take a pride in the length of canal they look after.
Mind you Julie was the harbinger of bad news, it seemed. Mooring in Ripon is tight and there were several hire boats up there already. “Never mind,“ smiled Julie, “there is a BW Sanitary Station just before Ripon Basin. It’s got a 48 hour mooring with it. You can stop there.” “And then move into the basin after 48 hours,” I replied. “No,” Julie retorted, “can’t allow that, I’m afraid – it’s all part of the same mooring as the basin. I can only let you have 48 hours…”. I was a couple of locks and under two miles away from Ripon, my goal for the last three and a half months, 645 miles and 450 locks behind me, and I was supposed to spend my time on the Sanitary Station mooring…! I’m not a demanding person and said no more to Julie as we parted amicably. To myself, however, I said “Sod that! Let’s see what happens…”
In the event I went through the last two locks, allowing myself to get a little emotional in the very last one, Rhodesfield Lock, and slipped along the line to Ripon Basin. There were indeed several hired boats moored along the attractive, but surprisingly short, resorted jetty. If they all shifted up a bit there’d be space for me. As it was there seemed to be no-one around, but there was a bit of space at the lower end, next to the trees. I slipped into the basin itself, winded, came out again, just ghosting along, and stopped at the very end of the jetty. I got the stern end of FRILFORD tied to the last mooring ring, hard up against a large ‘yogurt pot’, and ran various lines around trees beyond the jetty to secure her midships and forward. The canal sides sloped rather casually towards the middle of the canal, and had been reinforced with netting. FRILFORD was a bit off the bank and I struggled to get her closer without damaging either her hull or the restored canal sides. Eventually, though, I did get her closer, certainly giving enough room for boats to pass by.
I switched off the engine and paused. I didn’t care it was overcast and raining. I didn’t care the place seemed deserted, save for the traffic thundering past on the road just behind the newly-planted hedge. I didn’t care because I was in Ripon. I’d arrived.
I know what it’s like to make a landfall after many days at sea. A fleeting moment of elation followed by a strange void-like feeling. This was no different. Completely different, of course, but actually the same. It’s a good feeling. I stood there in the rain and thanked FRILFORD, out loud, for looking after me. Somewhere behind me a couple of ducks started quacking loudly. That always sounds like raucous laughter and might be directed at me. I started laughing too!
Would it be downhill from now on? Hardly.