On Board
Narrowboat "FRILFORD"
(British Waterways No. 500645)

 

Chapter Five – Now It All Begins…

Monday 21st March 2005.

Today was the day. My logbook has From/At….. and Towards….. fields on its pages. Today I wrote ‘From/At ….Abingdon… Towards…the UK!… And so it was: after what seemed like endless delays I was off. And I was nervous.

The previous few days had been filled with doing all those jobs which I could have done some time ago but which my temperament will not let me do ahead of time. I didn’t have to rush to get them all done, but I did have to work through them steadily. I have to work to a definite deadline. If I don’t have one I don’t start a task, and if I don’t start, obviously, I don’t finish.

I’m not a list maker by nature. My mother was a great list maker; maybe my not being one is a reaction on my part. I learned the technique from her, however, and the ‘To Do…’ list I’d started at some stage (it exists – I am looking at it as I write this!) was now filling several pages of a spiral bound reporter’s notebook. I was crossing stuff off as I did it, however, so the process was working. What stuff? Well…
Change navlight bulbs
Buy river chart
Sort out toolbox
Fix foredeck lights
Sort out centre rope
Polish interior
… that sort of thing. The list went on and on….. but I got most of it done, and the few things that did not get done are still not done as I write this at the end of April and are not, clearly, vital and now form a sort of imaginary ‘wish list’.

Monday 21st March was a rather grey and overcast day, with a slight breeze from the southeast. I woke early in my bed at the top of Father’s house that I had been using since September last year; much longer than I’d expected. It was not lost on me that I’d not be sleeping on shore again for some time. I wanted to get on my boat and go, but there were things to do first. I’d arranged with Gary Boughton-Smith, the affable marina manager at Abingdon that I’d store my car at his lock-up in Radley, so he and I drove over there first thing and he took charge of my car. I’d decided to keep the thing taxed and insured for this year, something that has cost me more than the car is worth, I suspect. I just know, however, that, were I to do it, the moment I took it off the road officially and claimed my road fund tax and insurance back, within no time at all I’d have a need for it. Fully taxed and insured, as it is, it will, no doubt, sit in Gary’s lock-up unused for the rest of this year! Ah well.

My departure time was set for 1100 hrs. I was flattered, very flattered by the interest my departure was causing. The Pattendens wanted to be there to wave me off. My sister Felicity drove over from Minchinhampton in Gloucestershire to be there and Father decided to fire up his boat, which he and I had been washing and cleaning over the weekend ready for the season, and follow me up the river “Got to make sure he’s actually going this time!” was his justification! Daphne, another marina neighbour was there, as were neighbours Brenda, John and Lillian. Lillian’s partner Edwin was supposed to be there but got held up in a meeting in Oxford. Presents, mostly in the form of bottles, always well received, came onto the boat, and all in all it was indeed an ‘occasion’.

These things always slip a little so it was actually 1125 hrs when I started the engine and 1132 hrs when I dropped my lines and came off the mooring. I backed into the marina and performed a ‘parade lap’. Not out of arrogance or some ill placed thought of self-importance, but rather because I was leaving a place of which I had become very fond, both the place and the people therein, and I am too emotional a person not to mark that in some way. Father got his boat ‘Andrea’ off her mooring (well, a borrowed one actually – I’d been on his mooring since February!) with Daphne and the Pattendens on board. Felicity and Lillian, and Brenda who was standing on her balcony, stayed ashore waving. The pool at Abingdon Marina is a big one so my parade lap took a few minutes but it was then over and I pointed my bows at the exit and the River Thames beyond. I flicked a switch and gave a long blast on FRILFORD’s horn, waved one last time at those on the shore, formed a little two-boat convoy of FRILFORD with Father’s ‘Andrea’ behind, and was gone.

The little convoy went up Culham Reach in fine style with John Pattenden taking pictures of me (I have them but they are prints and I have not yet been anywhere where I can get them scanned, so they are not here, but I will scan them for they are good pictures and capture the occasion well) and me taking pictures of them. Champagne appeared on Andrea and Father manoeuvred her in close to FRILFORD so that I could take delivery of a glass. We toasted each other all the way to Culham Lock!

I went through Culham Lock at 1200 hrs. 1153 hrs to 1203 hrs according to my logbook, but for a Noon Position on the first day Culham Lock seems fitting. It had been closed for maintenance for three months and had been part of my being held up. My passing through it was confirmation, perhaps, that this time I was away. There were no more hold-ups. I was off. That’s how I saw it, anyway.

As I went under the small road bridge below Culham Lock I looked back and gave one last wave to Father, Daphne and the Pattendens then I looked forward once again. My boat pushed forward along an empty river. Me, my boat and the water. This is how I’d imagined it would be. I’d been able to construct the thought when going to Lechlade and back, but that had been an exercise. A useful and enjoyable exercise, no doubt, but this was different. This was actual progress on my quest.

Okay, okay: I know. I’m in danger here of making too much of this. Dame Ellen Macarthur, as she now is, has recently returned from an enormous personal endeavour and holds the Singlehanded Round the World Non Stop sailing record. In her account of her extraordinary voyage when she got back she talked of crossing the start line and the quest lying before her etc etc, and that is appropriate. What she was undertaking was a huge challenge and was very much worthy of some reflection. In comparison, if there is a comparison at all, what I am doing is a very tiny thing indeed. Except that if one has ambitions, and one works towards them and achieves at least the start of the realisation with the hope that the quest will continue, and if those ambitions involve doing something about which one knows little, and of which one has no experience but which one plans to take very seriously, then that too is worthy of some reflection. So I was a little reflective when I set off on that Monday. There I was, a middle-aged single man who’d never been married, does not have children (at least as far as I know! No-one’s told me otherwise…) who’d walked away from a perfectly good job, sold a perfectly good house in a street in which he liked living, bought a boat, bought a small flat in a rather alarming down-sizing procedure, let the flat for twelve months and taken off on said boat. No wife, no family, no job, no commitments, apparently no responsibilities… Sounds good, maybe. But add to that ‘no purpose’, which I find I cannot leave off, and suddenly the thing seems less good. I have not sorted that out in my own mind yet. Not that these thoughts were anything new. I have always worried that the problem, for me, of undertaking ‘time out’ like I now am, is that it is difficult to quantify and thus to justify. On that Monday these thoughts were suppressed but formed a significant background. They do still. It is all rather purposeless, is it not? If what I am doing has no purpose then, perhaps, I have no purpose and I need a purpose in order to justify myself. I’ve been on the water just over a month now. It is good, very good, but I haven’t sorted this one out yet. Need a purpose…

I got to Clifton Lock at 1248 hrs and hung around in the river whilst the lock-keeper cleared some tree debris from the lock gates. The Environment Agency had been doing some much-needed tree pruning in the cut but there was debris everywhere. As ever with these people the lock-keeper was very pleasant and we chatted about my trip. I told him this was Day One of my great adventure! He wished me every success, which was good of him.

I was soon away and chugging round the great bend in the river that leads to Days Lock. Days Lock was unattended and a middle-aged couple in quite a big narrowboat were preparing to work it themselves. There was quite a strong breeze blowing us both onto the layby berth so we both struggled a bit to get off it and into the lock. Thereafter it went well and since they seemed keen to get on I let them go and closed the bottom sluices and gates myself.

On my way to Benson Lock I did something which I hoped would become a regular feature of my trip: I listened to the afternoon play on BBC Radio 4. I had the radio on deck with me and was able to hear it clearly without having to have it turned up too loudly. I hate the idea of noise pollution and, anyway, a radio on a boat can be a bit distracting if it is too loud. The reason why this has not become a regular feature of my trip so far became obvious as I approached Benson Lock. One has to do things and one cannot concentrate on the radio. It would be wrong to do so; one must concentrate on coming alongside the layby berth, or following the lock-keepers instructions and, in this case, avoid hitting the other boats in the lock. I turned the radio off so missed the end of the play, but, in fact, I think the guy got the girl even though she had been cursed as a child and thought she was a widow, having, as part of the curse, been married to a dog which had then been killed. I hope he did get her because he was a doctor working far from home actually as a hotel porter, living in a broom cupboard and living of food thrown out of the hotel kitchen. They both deserved better.

After Benson Lock the weather got rather lively with strong gusts of wind sweeping down the river. Small ‘white horses’ appeared in a wind-over-tide effect caused by the river’s stream and the wind going in opposite directions. I looked forward and laughed as, incongruously, the spray from a couple of bow waves was blown up onto the foredeck. This was Southern Ocean stuff in miniature. Out of curiosity I switched on my bilge pump and checked the outlet. Water came out! I am on a narrowboat passing The Beetle and Wedge pub restaurant (very good by the way) en route to pass The Leathern Bottel pub restaurant (also very good – better, some might say) on a ‘smart’ part of the River Thames, so not exactly ‘out there’ as it were, and I have waves breaking over the bows and water in the bilges! By now I am dressed in the foul weather jacket which protected during the British Steel Challenge in 1992-93 so, hey, life on desk is not all beer and skittles, you know!

I had wondered about mooring for the night along this stretch somewhere but, as I have explained, the stopping process does not come easily to me, so I pressed on for Cleve Lock. I got there at 1615 hrs. The lock-keeper went off duty at 1600 hrs so I prepared to work it myself. However, a cabin cruiser hire boat that had been following me since Benson Lock pulled up behind me. Father, mother and three teenage boys. They tied their boat up to the layby berth just behind me and sat there looking at me preparing to work the lock. I laughed and called to them asking if they’d like to give a hand.
“Oh, sorry,” they called in various forms, “we’ve only just picked this boat up. It's all new to us. We had the locks explained to us but they said there’s a lock-keeper who operates them. We’re waiting for him…!”
“He’s gone for the night,” I laughed.
“Oh,” they exclaimed, “Do you know how to work a lock? We don’t!”
“Yes,” I said, “I’ll show you.
So I gave them all a bit of a lesson in lock operation and got the teenage boys to do it all on the basis it was part of the learning process – which it was, of course! They did okay and got let off half their new responsibilities because whilst we were in the lock the lock-keeper arrived from downstream on an EA launch, driven by another look-keeper, so the two of them put the hydraulic power back on a locked us both through.

We went in convoy to Goring Lock, just round the corner. There we were joined by a couple of fellas in another narrowboat. They seemed to be having engine trouble and decided not to come into the lock with us but very kindly worked the lock for us. It seems they were on a bit of a pub-crawl down the river (I was to see them several times again over the next few days!), were not too worried by the engine trouble and had decided to find a pub in Goring. They seemed quite ready to work up a thirst by working Goring Lock for the hire boat lot and me, for which we were all grateful.

Beyond Goring lies Beale Park where there are good moorings with attractive views of rolling parkland on the opposite side of the river. I swung FRILFORD around to face upstream back whence I'd come. I tied up just below Beale Park at 1750 hrs and turned the engine off at 1758 hrs. I poured myself a whisky and soda and sat up at the bows under the foredeck lights writing my log. I like the log to be right so I had the chart out and the compass checking courses at each hour etc (no, of course this is not really necessary but it gives some structure to the whole venture and if one hasn’t got purpose one can at least have some structure…).

My logbook reads ‘1815 – Drinks on foredeck. Bloody marvellous. END OF DAY 1 !!’

And so it was…