Category: England east coast

Cornwall to Scotland days 17 to 21

Day 17 – Faced with the prospect of spending several days here in Lowestoft we checked with the harbour master to make sure we were berthed in the right place. Ship manoeuvres in LowestoftBut thirty minutes after having assured us everything was OK he came over to our pontoon and explained that a rather large and very solid looking old ship was about to be manoeuvred past our pontoon and it may be safer if we took Cirrus out of the way for a short time. Of course, an hour earlier it had been calm but by this time the wind was whistling past us so our own manoeuvres were quite exciting, let alone what was shortly to be happening just upwind of us. But if we wanted a stunning example of what a professional tug-master can do, this was it. We felt like applauding after he had shunted the large and ungainly ship through a gap barely wider than the vessel itself and tucked it away behind a pontoon with no fuss or bother at all.

We wandered off to explore Lowestoft and much to our surprise soon found, beyond the ‘standard’ High Street’ with its repetitions of shops found in every town in the country, another older model which harked back to an earlier age. Here the buildings are small and narrow by comparison, but varied, Elizabethan timbers jutting out over the street next door to a much later brick tenement. Here we found a shop selling square-rigged sailing ships which could be flown like a kite, a barber’s shop complete with striped pole and a place offering computer repairs. Then, leading off between these houses are a series of narrow alleys known as Scores, many of which have steps leading down towards the sea which are enclosed with local flint stone walls. There is Crown Score, Herring Fishery Score, Rant Score and Frost’s Alley Score, to name but a few, all of which would have led down to the original fishing port. Names like this are just dripping history, most of which we will never know.

It was fishing that inspired the construction of many of Britain’s coastal harbours, something that is noticeably diminished today and I have commented before on how many of the small north-east coastal fishing ports have turned towards leisure boating for their livelihoods by laying pontoons for visiting yachts, thus breathing new life into their towns. But since our last passage around the country in 2009 there is evidence of a new industry which is giving old ports a new lease of life – the wind farms. New sites for these, forests of giant ‘windmills’, have sprung up along the south coast, in the Thames estuary and in the Wash and for both their construction and ongoing maintenance or repair this means more boat traffic coming into and out of ports. We noted this particularly in Ramsgate where there were many more vessels going in and out at all times of the day and night. Then in the near future we can expect tidal generators to appear as well, making use of the strong currents around our coasts, the same ones that we try to take advantage of when we are sailing. This will mean even more boat traffic (and also more things to avoid when out sailing). We have the feeling that we are witnessing the birth of a new age, something that is transforming our country, and particularly our country’s coastline, right in front of our eyes.

Just as a matter of interest, there is a generator tower mounted onshore close to the harbour here in Lowestoft which apparently is known as ‘Gulliver’. Does this mean that all such towers have names, I wonder?

Days 18 to 21 – The Royal Norfolk & Suffolk Yacht Club, in whose marina we are now berthed, is an ancient and worthy body. It seems the club was formed in 1859 to try to control the behaviour of yacht crews of the time who took their competitiveness rather too far by fighting with opposing yacht crews rather than trying to out-sail them. Things grew from there and in 1903 the present clubhouse, an imposing local landmark, was built at a cost of £4,500. Today, when entering the clubhouse lobby for the first time one immediately begins to suspect that time has somehow slowed down inside the walls whilst life continued outside at a different pace. There are many startling and astonishingly well preserved features which can only be of great vintage and for which, it is clear, no expense can have been spared. Urinal at RNSYCThe one that really made my jaw drop is in a place only ever frequented by gentlemen (and I use this word in the very proper sense), the toilet. The urinal is by Twyfords, its porcelain preserved precisely as when it was first minted, and the polished copper cistern hanging above, which bears an engraved club crest, is a masterpiece of Victoriana worthy of the British Museum. I hope I am not breaking any club rules by revealing all in this photo.

There is also an atmosphere to the clubhouse which is clearly enjoyed and encouraged by many of the members, that belongs in a timeless world of its own. Appropriate dress is something that is seen as something important, to the point that our own over-casual apparel leaves us feeling rather intimidated. I don’t have a blazer to my name, I confess, and if I did it is unlikely that we would deem it an essential piece of equipment to have on board the boat. An evening visit to the club bar makes me realise just how wrong I am in taking this view.

None of the above should detract, however, from what is undoubtedly a successful and thriving club which offers excellent facilities to any visiting yachtie, whatever the cut of their jib. This is our second visit here (we stopped here in 2009) and were it not for its remote easterly location, we would make many more visits. Better still, perhaps the whole structure can be transplanted nearer to our home so that we might revel in the timelessness whilst studying the sepia prints of lateen-rigged sailing yachts in days long gone.

Our luck with the wind since Plymouth has finally run out and like a number of other yachts, we are now hunkered down waiting for the fresh northerlies to moderate a little and let us move on. We take the opportunity to shop, to touch up some varnish and to explore the town a little more. One of the nice things about staying in port is the opportunity it creates to meet and get to know others who are travelling about in similar circumstances, others who have committed themselves to a life aboard a boat. David and Trisha have a lovely boat called Lioness in which they have travelled extensively over the last 10 years or so. This year they had set off, like us, to sail around the British coast anticlockwise but back in May whilst coming into Lowestoft Harbour their propeller became tangled on a piece of a rope which caused considerable damage to the engine and gearbox. Extensive repairs have now been carried out but this has held them up and they will not be able to complete their round Britain circuit this year. They are not deterred, of course, and will start again next year hoping for better luck.

We are ready to move on now, fuel tank topped up (since leaving Plymouth our engine has burnt only thirty litres of diesel!) and food laid in for the next few days at least. We have a long passage ahead, across the Wash to Grimsby, and it will be an early start to take advantage of the tide up the coast.

Cornwall to Scotland days 13 to 16

Day 13 – Two days of living and sleeping on land is about what it takes for us to get our land legs back and for the world to stop bouncing about. Then we return to Ramsgate Harbour to find Cirrus still leaping about wildly along with all the other boats in the harbour, so our legs have to learn all over again. 17July2011A full gale is blowing now. Even the cross-channel ferries have stopped running, and it takes a lot for them to give up and go home. Catamarans don’t, of course, lean over, but the monohull yachts in harbour are all leaning one way just with the pressure of the wind on their masts, as if gravity has taken leave of its senses. The forecast chart shows that the depression giving us this weather, currently centred over Middlesbrough, will move eastwards over the next few days and eventually things will calm down. When it does then there will be a mass exodus of boats, everyone who has been pinned down in port trying to move on at the same time. Summer gales like this are not uncommon and it may be windy but it is not cold so we just have to sit it out and amuse ourselves, keeping our heads low for a while. It is a good time to sit around and read some of the books we have picked up on our travels. Many marinas have a few book shelves tucked away in a corner somewhere which function as a library operated by an unseen and unwritten set of rules. Travellers simply deposit books they have read and take away those that interest them, no tickets needed, no librarians and no fines.

Day 14 – Still in Ramsgate, we spend the day shopping and tidying up the boat. The strong wind continues to blow and by late afternoon we check the forecast model once again to see whether the wind is doing what it should. The noise in the rigging has not abated and dark grey clouds are still marching across the skyline. We note that by midnight, if the prediction is accurate, it will finally quieten down. It helps us to believe in this.

Day 15 – The morning is quiet, as predicted, with just a light southerly breeze, which is not quite as forecast but is fine for us, for we are moving north. But not before we have some serious waving to take care of. First of all there are Chris and Chris who have come over to Ramsgate armed with white hankies. Cirrus waving farewellThey nearly miss us there but by the time we reach Broadstairs they have moved onto the pier and are waving away again. At Stone Bay we get a mobile telephone call from Richard telling us where to look onshore so we can wave at him, and there he is, standing on something or someone tall gesticulating madly. We thought we were done then but just as the coast turns east and we start to move away offshore across the Thames estuary there are Chris and Chris again, arms going like semaphore. We collapse on the deck, our arms exhausted from all the flapping about, but thrilled to think that we have had such a marvellous send off for our journey north.

Hours later we are still glowing as we negotiate the complex of channels and shoals that lie in our path en route to Suffolk and hear a message on the radio saying there will be a ‘Controlled Detonation’ of a mine at a position somewhere near the Gunfleet. We rush to the chart to plot the position to find ourselves only ten miles away, but nevertheless at a safe distance. In the end we did not hear the explosion above our own engine noise but Chris told me later that he did from all the way south in Broadstairs.

We had thought we might miss Essex completely this time round but after six hours under a scorching sun, mostly with the engine thumping away but latterly with our spinnaker drawing us along nicely, we are closingSunset in Hamford Water Pye End buoy off Walton-on-the-Naze and decide to head into the Backwaters for the night. Two miles up stream we drop our anchor into the mud of Hamford Water just as a seal slithers from the bank and heads off for a night’s fishing. Fairy terns hover excitedly over a shoal of fry and up above us a large raptor glides by, eyes peeled for prey. We cannot identify him for certain but we know the Brent geese who are wading in the shallows and the noisy oyster-catchers who screech by us. This spot is just heavenly and to cap it all, the sun puts on a show for us at the close of the day.

Day 16 – Our aim today is to sail north along the Suffolk coast to Lowestoft, not because we particularly like the place, but more because of the forecast northerlies coming our way in the next day or so. But the peace and quiet of our anchorage holds us like glue and whilst chatting with the seal first thing this morning he did seem to be expressing the view that he liked having us here. Maybe he will wave us off.

We leave around midday, which is before the tide turns in our favour and therefore by definition, early and once across the busy shipping lane which feeds Felixstowe we raise the spinnaker and there it stays for the next thirty eight miles. We fly along with the wind right behind us and once past Orfordness, the tide starts going our way as well so we are moving even faster. We shoot past Aldeburgh doing eight knots (over the ground), people standing on the beach can barely turn their heads quickly enough. Sizewell’s dome shaped nuclear power station appears then disappears behind us and Southwold’s windmill flashes past too. By six o’clock we can see the lone wind turbine that sits on Lowestoft’s pier and we are in harbour by seven, temporary members of the Royal Norfolk and Suffolk Yacht Club with access to their showers. which we make liberal use of.

Cornwall to Scotland days 10 to 12

Day 10 – DungenessAll it took in the end was one longish day at sea, with an eight o’ clock start, to complete our passage along the south coast of England and turn the next corner (left again). Favourable winds came our way yet again making this a fast passage, past Dungeness with its multiple lighthouses (the sea deposits more land out into the Channel every year leaving the old lighthouses behind and requiring a new one to be built further out) and past the floating drilling rig ‘Rambiz’ which, once we were past it, seemed to follow us around the coast like it was attached by a long piece of string.Crane off Dungeness

The actual corner of the British coastline came just after we had dodged our way through an almost continuous line of cross-channel ferries going into and out of Dover harbour (a stressful little moment on a small boat). It is a simple matter of following the curve of the crumbling white cliffs to move quietly from the English Channel to the North Sea, a place where at first the water is tinted turquoise by the chalk dissolved from the cliffs then, as we close Ramsgate Harbour, it begins to assume the pale brown colour of the silt from the Thames estuary. Nine hours and sixty-four nautical miles after we left Eastbourne we are tying up to a pontoon and we can finally relax. An average speed of seven knots is fast for any sailing yacht of our size but we would not have achieved this without the fair tide running our way for much of the journey.

We are stopping for a while in Ramsgate taking the opportunity to catch up with a few friends and relations and also to let some wet and windy weather pass us by. We do try to avoid deliberately flirting with inclement sailing weather.

Day 11 – The long sea swell on which we were rising and falling at sea yesterday creeps into Ramsgate Harbour to disturb our sleep. Cirrus surges back and forth making a sort of grunting noise each time one of the mooring ropes becomes tight. Sometimes the motion in one direction is reversed so rapidly that our sleep is disturbed, but only slightly, just enough to produce strange dreams.

In the morning my cousin Chris and her husband, also Chris, cycle over from Broadstairs for a visit and we chat on like long lost friends until hunger drives us ashore. Chris & Chris in RamsgateThey are both boat and ship fanatics who take a keen interest in the comings and goings of vessels passing through the Dover Straits – and what better place to live for this. They insist on photographing us and Cirrus, so naturally we photograph them too.

By evening we are visiting old haunts in Faversham, first the Elephant then the Phoenix (most pubs here are named after animals, mythical or otherwise), for an excellent evening of ‘craic’ with our friends.

Day 12 – We stay the night with friends Rich and Gerry then meet up again with the same crowd for a long lunch with Richard E. in celebration of his impending retirement. This was originally planned as a ‘Retirement Regatta’ involving lots of messing around on boats in the sheltered waters of the Swale but the weather scuppers these plans by raining for most of the day and keeping us indoors.Rich with Hot Horns By evening the the rain has stopped and the sun is out and glinting off the cherries in the orchard back at Rich & Gerry’s place. Rich has to have firm words about pushing over trees with a black sheep called ‘Hot Horns’. The reasons for the name become obvious when you grab him by the scruff of the neck– the horns are indeed surprisingly warm to the touch.

There is plenty of wind about just now, a little too much for us to be venturing out on Cirrus. Through the Internet we are able to access weather forecasts for at least five days ahead and this gives us a possible sailing windows for the coming week so that we can make our next big jump, crossing the Thames Estuary to Suffolk. Despite the variability of British weather these forecasts have proved to be surprisingly accurate at predicting wind speed and direction and giving us warning of the conditions we are likely to encounter.


George cake cuttingNinety years ago this week, a baby boy to whom his parents gave two names entered the world; he was George Arthur. Ever since, for various complex reasons, there have been two distinct groups of people, one of which has always known him as George and the other, as Arthur.

Despite falling firmly in the George camp, Kate and I were honoured to be invited to join a distinguished group of ‘Arthurs’ proudly celebrating his birthday at a small dinner. The venue for this, the guest list and even the menu was organised and selected by himself. Throughout the day he had been showered with gifts, with cards and with best wishes although none of this prevented his first putting in a couple of hours gardening, raking up fallen leaves from his back lawn. The guests at the meal were his friends and his peers – hardly surprising, therefore, that we represented the younger contingent – and inevitably one begins to speculate on one’s own future at times like this. As we approach George’s age will we too have the energy to keep the garden tidy, the presence of mind to remember our birthday and the strength to cut a cake to celebrate it. Ben's birthday partyFinally, a few days after the meal, as companion to my mother, he jetted off for a few weeks’ holiday in Hawaii. I am greatly encouraged by his comment about needing to be equipped with shears to deal with the grass skirts out there. There’s plenty of life in him yet!

Also celebrating a birthday this week is our son Ben, considerably younger and far less sober than George, as can be seen in this picture. He is of an age when one just doesn’t ask too much about what he gets up to late at night – it is better not to know. One just has to hope that it is legal. All we know about his birthday is that he organised a ‘tea party’ for his friends and at some point this picture of him was posted on Facebook. And he is not likely to be jetting off to a Pacific island any time soon.

On our way back from the meal with George we popped in on friends Rich and Gerry and repossessed our long-abandoned cycle trailer, something we’ll be putting to good use around Yeovil when we need to transport building supplies. Sailing Barge Greta in FavershamThe mice who had lived for a time inside the body of the trailer while it languished in storage in Rich’s garage had left their bedding behind (along with one or two smaller gifts) but the wheels still spin happily and no harm has been done.

Then whilst away from home we found time to visit a few more old friends down in the mud-silted ditch they call Faversham Creek. There was a time when out sailing in this area we would regularly cross the paths of the sailing barges Greta, Lady of the Lea or Repertor during one of their match racing events in the Swale or the Thames estuary. On more than one occasion we found ourselves returning home to our mooring on the River Medway just when such a race was beginning or ending and steering smartly aside to avoid being crushed by one of these beautiful lumbering giants.

Stepping onto the quayside at Faversham today is like moving into another century, home as it is to so many of the surviving barges. This is one of the few places left in Britain where all the skills needed to maintain and sail these vessels are being kept alive. Each time we visit there is a new restoration project under way and our old favourites, like Greta, gleam with new paint. How all this activity is funded, how those working on these big restorations are paid for their efforts, is a mystery but I am certain that without the quay on Faversham Creek most of these hard-worked old ladies would be lost to us and the skyline of the east coast of England would be forever changed.

Finally on the subject of birthdays, one of our builders admitted having one of his own this week. Andrew has a talent many would admire, particularly those engaged like us on house improvement. With consummate ease he can lay a film of plaster on a wall, regardless of the angle, and produce a perfect surface, smoother than a baby’s bottom and minus the smells. Watching him closely as he runs his float over what we think is a finished section of wet plaster, we experience a mild panic that he is going to spoil the surface he has just created. But no. He slides his fingers over the surface to sense the moisture then glides on another layer, his efforts always bringing a slight improvement, even when it seems impossible to better what he has already done. The job is done and our steel beam now lies forever hidden. The illusion is complete.

Although we will be needing their help again elsewhere, the two brothers have now completed re-modelling our downstairs space so we must now crack on with the painting and decorating. We have run out of excuses now. The hard work starts here.

Hedgerows and landscapes

On our journey north away from the spring of northern Italy we pause briefly to experience the same season just emerging in southern England. The buds here are swelling in the hedgerows, making this contrivance one of the most remarkable of man’s creations. Some examples are nearly as ancient as human habitation; take a 30 metre length of hedge and its age in years can be roughly determined by multiplying the number of species by 110. Hawthorn and holly, beech and hazel, chestnut and alder plus so many more we cannot identify are all constrained together in a narrow corridor only an arm span wide which can stretch for many miles across the countryside. These are highways of life and they are as common here as they are absent from the land we have just left.

We stay for a few of days with friends, deep in Kentish farmland in their timber-framed cottage. From the back window we gaze out past the magnolia tree into a cherry orchard, home to magpies, woodpeckers, several tawny owls, the odd pheasant and many rabbits. A flock of rare-breed sheep, black with white faces (as if part of a photographic negative) are allowed to roam here in order to keep the grass trimmed and this gives a tidy aspect to the place, tidiness being a word that I have always felt applied to the countryside in this corner of Britain. In front gardens there is scarcely a hedge that is not trimmed, a lawn that is not cut or a shrub that is not pruned to within an inch of its life and this sense of order is somehow carried out into the farmland as well.

The land here appears almost flat (until you start walking when you soon realise it isn’t) and the skyline is at eye level, decorated with trees, currently bare of leaves with their twisted branches exposed and cold. The English country cottage, black timbers intersecting white plaster, is what we think of when we use the phrase ‘old house’, just as in Italy it is a tall dwelling built of large, irregular stones, often plastered in yellow and connected in a cluster with others on a steep mountainside. The age of the dwelling in each country may well be similar but the view through the window can never be the same. In Italy the horizon is visible only by tilting the head back uncomfortably and raising the eyes heavenwards. The contrast between Kent and Ligurian Italy could not be more vivid.

Our friends’ house, once three adjoining farm-workers cottages, is a now complex mix of dark beams and interesting corners, all tastefully decorated and with the conveniences of modern living blended neatly in. The positions of the walls between each of the former dwellings are still visible but these do not intrude or appear out of place. Wooden beams are ‘original’ which means that many have had a previous life somewhere else before being incorporated in the structure, perhaps in another house or maybe a ship. Look closely and you will find curious notches and grooves everywhere or a round hole with the remains of a wooden peg sticking out. Let the imagination wander and you’ll see a mast standing here, a rope holding back a cannon or a hammock swinging.

These few days are a pause for for breath, a time for re-acclimatisation and relaxation in comfortable surroundings before we return to the Scotland we love so much.

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