Category: England

Time on the water

Arms straining, I pull myself up the sloping foredeck for the nth time and wriggle into position on the windward rail where my meagre seventy eight kilos helps to balance the boat as she accelerates upwind again, crashing and bashing through the waves. The next piece of sea thumps into the bow, jumping up and dousing me with salt water but my body protects the rest of our crew from a soaking, not that their gratitude is particularly overwhelming, I have to say. This wave is one of many I take full on for them, but I’m not complaining. I signed up for a week of racing on Owen’s 10 metre X-yacht, Jochr, and know full well that this is what goes with the territory, it is just part of the experience.

We have a mixed bag of weather thrown at us, fairly typical for any summer in the West Highlands I guess, heavy rain and winds one day and light airs the next, but despite this our fortune in the rankings for our class remains good. For the final passage race, a long southerly beat down the Sound of Mull from Tobermory to Oban, my role is to ensure that the genoa passes smoothly around the front of the mast on each tack without the sheets catching on the front of the mast or the sail getting hooked on the guard rail. Aside from this I am ballast, the weight of me and the other crew making a minor but significant difference to the performance of the boat. Our skipper drives us across the Sound then back again, against twenty five then up to thirty three knots of headwind, as we fight to keep our place in the fleet of yachts that surround us. For hour after hour we battle on, hardly pausing for breath, until after four hours we find ourselves jostling for position on a finish line beside Lismore Light. The current is running fast here calling for fine judgement in close proximity to other boats but the gun fires at last signalling a good finish to the final race of the week, the end of six tough days.

West Highland Yachting Week                           West Highland Yachting Week

Jochr is on the far left of the picture, sail No. 9726

Our boat and crew have sailed through rain and shine, wind and calm, rough and smooth seas, enduring some excellent and challenging racing from which it takes my body some days to recover. At some point I will admit that I am too old for this sort of thing… but not yet.

As things turn out this year all this strenuous stuff follows soon after a family trip south into Yorkshire for a week long holiday on a narrowboat, motoring slowly along the Leeds to Liverpool canal, where the only real exercise is cranking the key to open the sluices on the many locks we pass on Megans Drum With us here are Mike, Eleanor and of course, wee James, for whom this is a first boating experience.

The term narrowboat means literally that and for good reason; these boats are built to fit the canals (or is it the canals that were built to fit the boats). The locks on our canal are just big enough for two boats, each a maximum of seven feet wide, to fit side by side with only inches to spare. The canals were built for working boats which often towed a ‘butty’, an engine-less load carrier, and it was essential that both boat and butty could fit in the same lock side by side. If the lock is any wider then all that happens is that you waste water. The overall boat length is an issue too as any more than fifty feet long and we’d be bumping up against the lock gates on the Leeds Liverpool. But given these restraints, it is quite surprising how much can be fitted in on board. On Megan’s Drum we have separate bedrooms, toilets and a shower, a fully equipped kitchen and dining room, storage for all our stuff plus the convenience of mains electricity for the microwave oven and the TV.

Our days on board consist of chugging slowly westwards through the Yorkshire Dales at no more than four miles an hour, the canal speed limit, so our pace of life slows to accommodate this. Being in charge of steering I get to watch my crew opening bridges and lock gates ahead of me then once through, I manoeuvre the heavy boat to the bank to pick them up again. It becomes routine, eventually, with each member of the team knowing what to do. Steering the long vessel around a tight bend requires forward planning, anticipation of the way the stern will swing, as the boat pivots about its centre rather than its rudder, but generally we manage to avoid bumping the canal sides too often or entangling ourselves with the trees that frequently overhang the water on one side. One can certainly imagine that life has always gone on at the same slow pace on the canals but (not surprisingly perhaps) young James finds it hard coping with the speed the world drifts by. He is often happier sitting below playing games on his ipad and we worry that he misses the herons standing knee deep in the shallows or the amusingly named and brightly coloured narrowboats that are floating homes to a sizeable population on England’s waterways.

At dusk all traffic stops and we too pull over and moor to the bank. The water becomes still, only disturbed by the movements of the odd duck, the occasional swan and fish rising to take flies from the surface. Now the tree-clad banks and the painted boats are reflected almost perfectly by the water creating a surreal inverted image.

Megans Drum on the LeedsLiverpool canal

Swale to Swaledale

Ducky feels more and more like home to us during this extended period of travelling about. Before we left Carradale we had a long list of places to visit, people to drop in on, but the next stopping place on our grand tour only occurs to us after we realise we would be passing so close. This Geoffrey&Mary at homeis a surprise visit, it turns out, because we have no phone number to warn ahead that we are coming, but Geoffrey and Mary prove welcoming and accommodating just the same. We knew they would, of course, because they are from our own village of Carradale and only recently took up residence here in Suffolk. Their beautiful new home is in many ways more suitable than their house in Carradale but they miss the place like crazy and are keen to hear all our news. The fact is that were it not for Geoffrey’s efforts a few years ago we might not have been visiting them at all for it was he who once converted the original minibus into the motorhome we arrive in – he is ‘the man who built Ducky’. As well as fitting out motorcaravans, Geoffrey is also a talented artist and many examples of his work now adorn his new home, romantically inspired pieces out of which peer some familiar faces. We share a sunny afternoon with them but regrettably we have to leave as we still have the task of locating our next caravan site ahead of us.

Despite there being hundreds, if not thousands of camping sites in Britain, if there is a single up to date publication which includes every one, we have yet to find it. Using the Internet as our primary reference we have found that many listed sites no longer exist (or at  least we cannot find them). Fortunately, however, out in the real world there are plenty which are clearly signposted with brown road signs and there are still more surprise ones whose existence only becomes apparent on arrival by chance at the entrance. Then there are the barren lands where nobody camps. These ‘camping deserts’, as it were, only become evident when we have nothing planned and are driving along relying on chance to find a site for the night, becoming more and more desperate as the day lengthens. Like buses, of course, they will soon all arrive at once and we have a cluster of them to choose from.

It is a combination of chance and planning, however, that brings us to a campsite in Yorkshire’s Swaledale where the red-haired manager directs us to a position backing onto the River Swale itself. Perhaps he senses we have travelled so recently from that other Swale back in Kent and wants us to compare and contrast, to see which we prefer. The two pieces of water could not be more different, however. This one runs in a single direction, fast over stones, clear water which is alive with sticklebacks and other tiny fish, water which is slowly eroding itself deeper and deeper into the land. The Swale we are more familiar with back in Kent sits on its bed of mud which each year becomes thicker, the water shallower, the creeks gradually silting until they become land and only the faintest outline remains of what was once sea. We conclude that it is only the name that these two waters share.

What might be the last visit on this journey around England takes us to see friends Adrian and Jill who live in Barnard Castle on the edge of the north Pennine hills. We take tea with them whilst catching up on our separate stories since we left them outside Kew Gardens some four years ago. The intervening years have seen us sail around Britain once or twice whilst they and their three young children emigrated to New Zealand for a spell. We take pleasure in showing off Ducky to them giving them ideas for their next adventure, we hope.

Cows and clouds

Leaving ‘Barnie’ we have high hopes that our GPS lady, K2, can guide us across the country to the tiny village of Colby in Westmoreland where our guidebook tells us is a large, superbly appointed camping ground with every possible facility on offer.
The air is spectacularly clear and as we drop down from the moor the whole of the Lake District is spread out before us, Colby nestling in a quiet valley somewhere below. Eventually the voice on our dashboard politely informs us we have arrived at our destination, the centre of a quiet village of less than thirty houses and an unlikely setting for a large campsite. But then, through a gate, we spot a sign welcoming us to a tiny field no larger than our own back garden so we squeeze through and make ourselves comfortable. Colby with the guineafowlThis is certainly not what we expected, the amenities are sparse, to say the least, but we have a self-contained camping style and need only the basics to keep us happy. The real charm this place has, which is not to be found in the guidebook, are the guinea fowl, rotund, grey birds with disproportionately small heads, who strut around beside us as we watch the sun go down. That, and the fact that we share the place and the night with no other campers.

Despite Britain being an island we realise that we have travelled many miles since our last sight of the sea back at Oare Creek near Faversham in Kent. Because we missed seeing the River Thames estuary by driving beneath it, the next time we catch sight of the sea is on crossing the Erskine Bridge over the River Clyde in Scotland, with home only a few hours away. Throughout this long journey north the sun shines bravely on us, one single weather pattern progressing across the country at about the same speed as our own movement so that the rain behind it never quite catches us up. Fortune smiles on us, although one result of this is that our fly-spattered windscreen badly needs a wash by the time we arrive home.

Rambling around Kent

It occurs to us that we are once again travelling around Britain in an anti-clockwise direction. Having done this around the coast by boat, turning left at every corner, we wonder whether the fact that we are now describing the same motion on land might mean that we are, like the water in the plughole, programmed against rotating clockwise, forever constrained by gravity and the motion of the earth. Whatever the reason, we travel onward in an easterly direction until we nearly run out of land, which neatly brings us into Kent.Ducky at Dungate

Ducky fits tidily into the drive of Rich and Gerry’s house at Dungate where we are accommodated during this part of our travels. Our friends, in training for future trekking holidays, take us with them on one of their jaunts around the Kentish countryside, in company with a few others, and we revel in the sudden warm spell that conveniently arrives for us. This part of the country is familiar to us but after so long away the vegetation appears dried out compared to what we might find in Scotland. We walk all day without once getting water inside our boots, an experience unheard of on any Scottish hillside, but despite this we enjoy ourselves and find the company engaging and enjoyable. TheMondayRamblersThis group regularly go walking together, usually on a Monday for some strange reason, taking pains to ensure the chosen route has interest and sufficient length to satisfy without exhausting anyone. Our day out as incomers to the group happened to be planned by Rich himself, so we just knew it would be entertaining somewhere along the way, and we were not to be disappointed. Although mostly walking on vaguely marked paths across farm land, on arriving at the edge of one largish village (or maybe it would be a small town) we are directed straight through a fully operational industrial estate where large lorries are being loaded, fork-lift trucks careering about everywhere. The signposted footpath, clearly of much greater vintage than the industrial park, is marked on the ground here with yellow paint and beset with safety barriers and warnings so that meandering walkers do not impede the important business operations or vehicle movements. We follow, although not without some trepidation, until safely back on more familiar ground again. Surely only in the garden of little England could so much effort be dedicated to preserving the historic route of a footpath across a piece of land regardless of what is subsequently built there.

Swale walkers

Several days later we are on another ramble, this time along the north Kent shore of The Swale, that stretch of water separating the inhabitants of the Isle of Sheppey from the rest of us. With all this exercise we feel that total fitness ought to strike us at any moment… but somehow it eludes us still and we are left with the same aching limbs and wonky knees.

The Swale fails to achieve the status of a river largely because it has an exit to the sea at each end, but this does not prevent it having currents, strong ones too, that ebb and flow simultaneously towards or away from a watershed at the centre. During each tide the precise spot at which both tides meet migrates along the Swale due to an imbalance in the flows from each end so that calculating direction of the current and the depth of water at any single point along the way is a complex, almost mystical, business. It is, however, wisdom that is deeply ingrained in many of the sailors who use these waters and at least some of that knowledge still remains within Kate and me from the days when we used  to sail here regularly. Memories from our earliest sailing days, with young children on board our small boat, come back to us as we dawdle along the Kent shore, past the crumbling remains of the explosives factory and beside the low-tide mud of the Swale itself.Ducky and caonpy

After our walk we all climb into Ducky for a brew of tea whilst I enthuse about her virtues as a mobile home. The latest addition to our caravanning armoury, I point out to those still awake, is the canopy which fits over our side door. This was very much a trial and error thing but we are pleased to be able to report, to all those along our journey who have helped with ladders, advice and electric drills, that it now works precisely as intended, as this picture shows. A big thanks to everyone on the canopy committee.

This is the point in our journey around Britain where we turn left towards home. We still have a few friends to visit (and some to make, we hope), some relations to drop in on, but heading north has a different feel now as we can taste the mountains of Scotland over the horizon.

A little deception

Ben&NaomiNot for the first time on our trip around Britain we find ourselves visiting a house built hundreds of years ago from materials which would be scorned by modern builders. Cob, a mixture of earth and straw, was once a common building material in the South West of England and in the home of our son Ben and his partner Naomi we find this material packed inside its immensely thick stone walls. We seem to be in the middle of nowhere once again and cannot quite understand how it is that so many of our friends and family live so deeply into single track road country. Drivers on these roads can face the most unlikely situations. Today we are held up by sheep escaped from a field, yesterday we paused to avoid an otter and tomorrow we may be stuck behind a hedgehog, none of which hazards are strongly featured in the Highway Code.

From the moment of our arrival at Ben’s home some secret plans are being hatched relating to giving Kate something she has privately yearned for for years but never been crazy enough to buy – a harp. Several days later we find ourselves with Ben and Naomi driving around Devon and into Cornwall once more. The real purpose behind this day has been kept secret from Kate but by late morning we find ourselves trundling down yet more single track roads to reach the home of Naomi’s former harp tutor. buying the harpThis time we are at the end of a road that crosses several fields, leading to a place so remote it is unknown to any GPS navigation system. The house has a massively beamed banqueting hall, complete with minstrel’s gallery, built on one end and we are invited inside to a room full of musical instruments, mostly harps of various sizes and shapes. Very soon the true purpose for our visit here is revealed to Kate, who is temporarily over-whelmed, but eventually she recovers enough to choose one, money changes hands, and she walks away with one under her arm (so to speak). After this little deception Kate’s secret desires are fulfilled and our large vehicle, with its harp-sized space inside, is now replete.Naomi playing for Jessie



Since Naomi is already a talented harpist our next stop is at my aunt Jessie’s home, our second visit in only a week, for a short recital. Jessie sits open-mouthed listening to the beautiful sounds coming from the instrument. Kate can now barely wait for the opportunity to be on her own with her harp, to wrap her arms around this creation in maple, to delicately pluck its strings and maybe find a tune of her own lurking within.




On our last night in Devon the whole of the county lies spread out in the late afternoon sun, the pink afterglow heralding a cool night which holds no fears for us tucked up snug inside Ducky. In the morning we finally leave the West Country heading to the south-east corner of England where more adventures await us.View from Brindiwell Hill

East from Cornwall

Our primary reason for driving seven hundred miles through all weathers to reach CornwallJessie at home is to visit Jessie, my sole remaining aunt, who at 92 years of age is my family’s supreme matriarch. The remote cottage she inhabits is far older than she is but it has been extensively adapted and is able to provide for her every need, right down to the semi-tame pheasant who conveniently comes to her back door and takes away any stale bread she has lying about. Jessie feeding pheasant

The driveway of Jessie’s home, however, was not really built with campervans in mind and at first sight it appears that the gateposts are simply too close together to allow us to pull in clear of the narrow lane. With careful manoeuvring we soon realise that we can fit Ducky’s stylishly designed hind quarters through the gate with an inch to spare either side although a scraping noise tells me that in doing so our roof is making contact with an evil hedge built from coarse Cornish vegetation. With Jessie’s permission I begin to cut back the offending wildlife with pruners and shears in order to permit passage for our high-sided vehicle but I soon find myself under attack from some of the sharpest and most virulent flora on this planet. It is the hawthorn that does me most damage, fighting back with every spike, until my hands and arms are bleeding and scarred and I have thorns sticking out of me here, there and everywhere. But I win in the end, if success is determined by the damage I inflict on the hedge, and we are able to pull our van off the road far enough to allow us to spend a night there.

The lane outside her house is barely wide enough for our van to squeeze along although strangely Jessie refers to it as the ‘main road’, which makes us wonder what the minor roads are like nearby. Everywhere the trees are flush with chirping birds which Jessie has taken it upon herself to feed from her garden. At one time or other the majority of Cornwall’s garden bird population appears just outside her kitchen window and the antics of these creatures provide endless entertainment whilst washing up or cooking, such that her only complaint in life is that there is never enough time in the day to sit and watch them. Her advanced age and a good memory for detail allows her to look back to a time when the world did not operate in quite the same way as it does today, a viewpoint that is inevitably different from most of those around her. She is interested in everything and seems to welcome the opportunity to sit and talk, keeping us up till midnight when the tawny owl sings out from her birdsong clock. Sadly we take to the roads later the next day, leaving her to her birds. If she can remember my instructions on how to operate her computer she may be able to read about herself here; the Internet is one of the few things that arrived a little too late in her life for her to cope with easily.

Sunset at West Bay

Several days later we find ourselves on a visit to Dorset’s West Bay with Peter, one of Kate’s widely scattered siblings, and his wife Liz. This is a favourite haunt for them and we all need the fresh air after eating a substantial Bangladeshi meal with them the previous evening. In the interim Ducky has been fitted with a comfortable new front passenger seat, ordered some months ago and stored beneath the stairs in Peter and Liz’s home in Yeovil. We dump the old, rather modified, front passenger dual seat which cramped the spine of anyone sitting on it for any length of time and Kate now luxuriates in a stately posture next to me while I negotiate yet more narrow lanes down to the coast. Dorset lanes are not simply narrow, they are deep too, chasms formed by tall banks which are a serious challenge to drive along. I try to keep as far over to the left as I can without our nearside wing mirror ploughing a furrow through the hedgerow but don’t always succeed.

East Cliff West BaycropWe like West Bay so much that we decide to stay for a night in the enormous caravan park which dominates most of the town. We check in then are directed to pitch #100 which is high up on the hillside, affording a view towards the pale East Cliff and Portland Bill beyond. Some 185 million years ago the sand was being deposited here in multi-thousand year cycles over immense periods of time, forming the layered structure that is visible today. The jury still seems to be out on what caused the whole process to repeat so often, forming the successive layers, or how they came to be separated by harder bands of calcified rock, but the view from the sea is striking, especially when the sun casts shadows on the cliff. This being the Jurassic coast it is impossible to escape the geology here; it just jumps up and bites you.

The camp site is impressive. For only a small fee we take in the view, dine in our own home, we skip the evening Country and Western show as we felt our costumes might not be up to it but sleep in total peace then get up and have an early morning swim in a warm indoor pool before heading off the next day.

Britain is about to be hit by the first equinoctial gale of the season so a quick visit to Lyme Regis to brave the wind blasting across the Cobb seems appropriate before we retire to Yeovil where Peter and Liz have the kettle on the moment we come in the door.

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