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


Chapter Six – Henley and a Lesson Learned!

Easter 2005

I woke on my second day of my quest to find the river pocked marked with falling rain. I have always said there'd be days when I'd stay tied to the bank watching the world and was amused that I was about to have such a day at the earliest opportunity!

Father rang: "It's raining - what are you going to do?"
"Nothing," I replied, "nothing, that is, until it stops..."

In truth it stopped after an hour and shortly thereafter a couple of narrowboats passed me moving downstream. This spurred me into action and before long I too was moving downstream. I caught them up in Mapledurham Lock where the lads with engine trouble on the riverine pub crawl were tinkering with their engine, and looking very morning-afterish, and the northern couple with the broken cratch I'd been with in Days Lock were still having trouble. I had been a bit behind them on the river but, in keeping with on-water geniality, the lock doors were opened for me (the boaters were working the lock themselves as the lock-keeper was working elsewhere) even though they were well into the locking process.

After that we made something of a convoy towards Reading. Well, not the engine trouble lads, of course. True to their helpful form they stayed behind to close the Mapledurham Lock and have another go at their engine. I was to see them again in Henley a couple of days later.

I arrived in Henley in the middle of the afternoon. I chatted with the lock-keeper at Marsh Lock, just upstream from Henley. He knew the village of Frilford and remarked on the name of my boat. I told him I lived in Henley and was returning there on my boat for the first time and that there were various people who expected to have a drink with me on board. He laughed and said he would have called the Town Council and got them to put a welcome banner on the bridge! Nice thought but, in fact, the dear old Henley Town Council need a very long time to discuss anything (I mean years, not weeks). Maybe if I go back in 2008 they'd do something - not that they know who I am, of course. Which rather begs the question "Who am I?" I don't have an answer for that.

My days in Henley were marked with feeling very content at being on my boat, feeling rather full of drink as friends came and went, feeling rather 'detached' and feeling downright dejected.

Why detached? I found it very odd to be back in Henley but with no job, no car, no home as such (although I had come to think of my boat as home the moment I set off from Abingdon on her) and to be outside what is taken by most people to be 'normal' life. That having been said I had all sorts of things to do and I strode purposefully through the streets on various important missions. Grocery shopping, buying bits for the boat, doing the laundry, that sort of thing!

I was tied up next to the River and Rowing Museum at Mill Meadows, which is a very good place to stay. A wide expanse of grass and benches on which to sit brings people out to play. It being Easter whilst I was in Henley, many people came out to play and enjoy the sunny weather. People can be very odd, though. I know we all know this but how could the large group, an extended family maybe, have a noisy but good hearted picnic on the grass and then go away leaving a huge amount of paper, plastic drinks bottles, crisp packets, newspapers - you name it, it was probably there - blowing around in the wind and spreading all over Mill Meadows, when there were a host of wastepaper bins within yards of where they sat?

The Women's Varsity Regatta was on whilst I was in Henley, so a number of very fit Women Varsity crews were in training up and down the river, pursued, rather pleasingly, by a number of fit, attractive women coaches up the towpath, thus past me, on bicycles. I have never rowed myself but I enjoy watching the sport and women's rowing in particular seems particularly attractive! I have been lucky enough to meet and get to know various top women rowers (medalled Olympians amongst them) and they are all charming, very attractive and, well, lovely.

Where was I? Oh yes - The Women's Varsity Regatta. I got FRILFORD back out on the water to chug up and down the regatta course as a spectator, and various people joined me on board. There were six races on the card, I think; mainly women's races but there was at least one men's race. Oxford won everything except the main race in which the Cambridge Blue boat beat the Oxford Blue boat by several lengths. Almost a good day, then! Actually it was a good day. There were thousands of people on the river bank and the sun shone. Earlier in the day my friend Liz Fletcher, who is half Chinese, 'dotted the eyes' of FRILFORD for good luck. I have not explored this properly but the Chinese certainly dot the eyes of the lion dance lions for good fortune and it seemed right that the blue circle on each bow of my boat should have a dot in them. In Hong Kong I know this is done with a special paintbrush. I was not so well organised so Liz kindly dotted FRILFORD's eyes using a thick black permanent marker! Fair enough, though: as I write this five weeks later the dots remain bright (can black on dark blue be bright?) and clear. And very round. Liz did an excellent job of drawing the circles and they are nearly round. Is it not true that if one can draw a perfect circle one is mad?! Liz?

The Drakeford-Lewis & Hilton crew came down for a drink on the Thursday evening before Easter. A couple of friends, Michelle and Judie, came too. Along the towpath came a couple to whom I'd sold a house so they joined in also. Actually I'd sold a house to Judie also, but 'sold' is hardly right. She was in the market for a certain type of house, I showed her one early one morning that was due to come on the market later in the day, she took the point completely and said she'd buy the house at the asking price and that was that. I did go though my selling spiel as I knew a bit about the house we were looking at, but in truth Judie bought the house, I did not sell it! Anyway, the party went very well. It did not end until the small hours and included a moonlight trip up down the river and back.

Actually all sorts of people came down for drinks at various times and a good time was, apparently, had by all. One day four different groups appeared at short intervals during the day, sometimes overlapping. Out with more wine, beer, gin etc and find more peanuts, olives, dippy things and crisps. Another day the Lansdales came down from Richmond and we 'escaped' upstream to Shiplake and lunched on the foredeck. Prawns and smoked salmon, which they provided. Marvellous. Indeed, people were very generous and when my Henley sojourn was over I think I was up by a bottle of champagne, a bottle of both red and white wine and a bottle of scotch! 'Twas good.

On the river the usual collection of ducks, swans and geese was augmented by the presence of a Mandarin Duck. I gather its been in Henley for a couple of years, but it was new to me and was the subject of much photographing by me. By the end of Easter most of the wild foul were looking a bit portly. I have never seen so much bread in the river! Feeding the ducks is an enduring pleasure missed by no-one and everyone wanted to have a go. Some of the feeding is not too subtle, however, and more than once I saw people throwing slice after slice of bread into the water when there wasn't a duck, swan or goose in sight. Apparently 'feeding the ducks' as a source of pleasure does not have to include the ducks, who I think by then had retired to their nests to diet!

Why dejected? I like to think I am reasonably good at handling the boat. I try to think about what I am doing and think about how to achieve what I am trying to do and I have been fairly successful at tuning out of myself the impetuosity which at times has seen me firing up the engine and moving off without getting prepared for whatever I am doing and then having to stop to sort myself out! In Henley I made two fundamental mistakes and compromised my boat, albeit not seriously, but that is not the point, both times. Both times I was trying to do no more than move about six boat lengths up the river to the tap to top up my water tank. There had been a lot of rain at night for a couple of nights. I learned later that the lock-keepers had been a bit caught out and the river level was higher, and thus the river flowing much faster, than might have been necessary. I saw this but, sheltered by the little island next to which I was moored, I did not see how much the stream was flowing. I moved FRILFORD upstream and decided to turn next to the island to come back down onto the tap. With hindsight I'm glad I did not make the turn because I would have had terrible trouble stopping before the other boats that were moored close to the tap. I didn't make the turn but I tried to make the turn. I was almost round when the stream caught my bows and slammed them into the concrete copingstones along the path. A woman nearby walking with her friends let out a cry as a loud banging impact shook my boat and me. I was able to recover quickly and drove the boat round the top of the island and back to my original mooring place without achieving a replenished water tank. The boat is made of heavy steel and the impact left only a mark, which I have since painted out!

Damn me if the next day I didn't have another incident. Do we ever learn? The next day the other boats had gone, I moved up to the water tap and secured my centre line, the one attached to the middle of the boat on the roof. Stupidly, for that is the only word for it, I attached the stern line before moving up to the bow... Why? In that time the stream caught the boat and steadily, not with great speed but with powerful determination, swung the bows out into the river. Very quickly the boat was pinned by the stern and was hanging off the centre line. The centre line is attached to the roof so the boat was being pulled over onto her starboard side. For a moment I though she was going to capsize. She didn't, but she was trapped. I hopped onto the stern and had a notion, at least for a crazy moment, that I'd release the stern line and drive the boat round the centre line on the engine. It would not have worked, I don't think, and might well have been just the thing to force that final capsize. Luckily a chap who lives on the island was there in his little 'ferry' boat. He pulled out a knife and with me on the stern waiting for the result he cut the centre line. FRILFORD rolled like a great whale but I was able to control her. "You go round again and I'll help you..." called the man, which is what I did, but I had to go nearly to Henley bridge in order to turn upstream again, and then I thought I might hit the bridge I was being pushed down onto it so fast! I got back to the tap, the man, who is called Steve, helped me and after that I was fine. The whole thing rattled me, however and was a salutary lesson well learned. Think what you are doing! Pointing upstream get a bow line on!

I was leaving Henley this day (Thursday 31st March) so having filled up with water I turned downstream and set off down the regatta course, past Temple Island, making for Hambleden Lock and beyond. I realised straight away that I might not be able to continue. The stream was still running fast. Instead of my usual 4 to 5 knots over the ground I was doing over 7 knots. Sure enough when I got to Hambleden Lock I saw that the lock-keeper had the red boards up. Red boards are put up when river conditions are considered too robust for safe navigation. One can still make passage but I think most insurance companies won't entertain any claims in such conditions. Anyway, it's dangerous, hence the red boards. Certainly the lock-keepers give one a printed card advising against navigation and I was given one that day. Already a bit 'jittery', to quote my logbook, after the tap incident, I passed downstream of Hambleden weir, itself no easy task as there was a great wide torrent of water rushing over it which all but slammed me into the opposite bank, and tied up near Medmenham. I did not know it then but I was to be there several days and was even to return there after a trip to Marlow in an attempt to make progress down river.

I made the best of the rest of the day, making a couple of small repairs to the boat - nothing to do with the incident - and teaching myself a new rope splicing skill using the bits of centre line. In fact, weeks later, as I write this, I can report that I now use one of these shorter bits of rope on a daily basis; it is perfect as a short line for use coming out of locks and for tying up at night. So this bad day was not all bad after all, but I did not know that then.

My logbook reads: 'PM - some river traffic but stream running fast. Had soup for lunch and spliced a loop in cut end of centre line & put a spliced end on the looped bit. Useful exercise! Repaired wood strip in aft hatch. Tidied up boat. A bit rattled – all a learning experience. GET BOW LINE ON! Let's see what tomorrow brings... Bloody Awful Day !'