Category: London

England for a while

Kate in Glasgow station

Kate sits munching on a croissant, while waiting for the train which will transport us to London, the first visit for several years. We have business there, our home for three years prior to retirement is being sold and we have come to collect the remainder of our belongings, but we go there on sufferance only, not through choice. The pace of big city life does not attract us; in fact we cannot stand it for long at all!

The journey is a fast one, a bus ride from the Wee Toon into Glasgow (with entertainment provided by the driver’s commentary accompanied by some pretty bad jokes) then intercity train which zips along at amazing speed through the countryside, stations passing faster than we can read their names, the whole of a good novel being devoured before Euston. It is here that the pleasure ends, abruptly, as we descend the escalators into the crushing underworld of the underground. The Tube, an apt description that brings to mind lengths of toothpaste being squeezed through a narrow nozzle, is stuffed full of a million or so sweaty bodies most of whom have not just stepped out of the Kintyre countryside but instead have struggled through a day of work in the humidity of the city. We have to change trains onto the DLR but just before Bank station we decipher a garbled announcement which tells us that our train will not be stopping there – the station is over-crowded. We thrust our luggage-burdened bodies out of the carriage onto the platform to immediately hear, “Bank station is now open. I repeat: Bank station is now open”,The DLR so have to squeeze ourselves back on board the next train, which is equally full. Fighting our way along miles of underground passages like termites the doors of the driverless Docklands Light Railway train finally appear in front of us and we haul our luggage on board. What a relief it is to arrive at Limehouse Basin, a place that was once our winter home on board Cirrus, a place where familiar boats still float quietly as we walk along pathways we remember so well and cross the lock gates to a welcome in the Cruising Association’s London HQ. This place is an island of peace in the mad city, a place where sanity rules once more.

We are not done yet though, for in the morning we venture forth for more craziness, this time on London’s roads in a brand new car hired from a dealership in the shadow of Tower Bridge.Tower Bridge Terrified of scratching this powerful beast’s shiny new paint we pilot through the stop-start maelstrom that is the capital’s full-time traffic jam. Buses loom over us, motorcycle messengers flick into view from behind, taxis U-turn directly in front of our bonnet and death-wish cyclists weave in and out of everything. The philosophy here is: To give an inch is to surrender – never surrender! There are rules here, but not those in any Highway Code. They are unwritten, hardwired into the genes of every Londoner but a terrifying mystery to all outsiders.

The London skyline triggers old memories but there is a newcomer here, a thousand foot shape is emerging from the ground, improbable and unfinished, it will soon dominate the skyline,The Shard from Tower Bridge taking over from lesser landmarks like the Gherkin and Big Ben. This is The Shard – where do they think of these names? – still some way short of its full height but rising higher every day. This is just another hotel and office block really, and thank goodness someone had the sense to put it here and not on Kintyre!

The hired car is a has an acre of load space and twin turbochargers tucked away under the bonnet which give it the long legs we need to transport us and our belongings around the country. Once we have escaped London we begin to observe the finer points of the countryside we are passing through. To our eyes, which are accustomed to a lush green vista, the land seems impoverished and dry. The grass is pale brown where it is cropped close to the hard earth, trees are in full leaf but look tired from straining hard to find water and weeds have rushed through their lifecycle to produce seed quickly with what little energy they have left. The south-east of England which has seen little rain now for over a month. My mother grumbles about the state of her flower bed when we visit her down in Ticehurst. This corner of the country seems to have become more arid in recent years and her flower portfolio may need to change too if she wants to avoid constant watering to sustain life. But having said this, the colourful spread she does produce is still the envy of all her neighbours.Mike at home

Our journey continued around the homes of some of our scattered family as we wrench our son Mike away from his computer to take him out for a birthday meal. It is also an opportunity to window-shop, to feast our eyes on exotic goods not found in shops close to home, to experience the novelty of being able to buy, well, anything we could possibly want and even more that we never will.

Our hire car takes the journey back to Scotland in its stride, only a deep rumble giving away the fact that the engine is even switched on. We run into showers somewhere north of Birmingham, strong winds across the Lake District then right on the Scottish border the sun pops out from behind a cloud and we know we are home. The ocean off the west of Kintyre sparkles for us, masses of white combed waves rolling up the golden beaches. Take away the million shades of green exhibited by the conifers and the bracken, the dazzling waterfalls bursting out of roadside crags, the sharp contrast of black rocks thrusting out of verdant mountainsides, remove the lochs and the mountain streams, wring out most of the water and take away all the road traffic and it could just be the southeast of England. Or maybe not.

Destination retirement

Quickly, before the events of the last few days slips into memory, I must make a record so that they are not forgotten. Never again will we pass this way and just as starting one’s first job is an event that sticks in the mind, so equally is the end of that job, the end of all paid work. But for those who have yet to come this way let me warn you that it may not be what you expect, it may feel more like a beginning than an end. You just have to decide what it is that is beginning.

But first we have to thank so many who have wished us on our way, for all the wonderful greetings and comments we have been pouring over on cards and messages we received and for the retirement gifts given to send us on our way. Thank you, thank you, thank you, we’ll miss you all.

And thank you to those of you who wished us on our way out of Central London, especially to Alison and Nathalie, our neighbours on Loch Invar for the colder months of this last winter and who were our official ‘waver-offers’ on the day Cirrus Cat left fresh water and emerged from the marina lock out into the salty brown waters of the Thames. The general sentiment from you all seems to be envy but you may have felt differently had you been on board as we motored down river later in light rain, fully clothed in our warmest hats and gloves with darkness closing in and miles yet to go.

The passage was not without its excitement, however. Woolwich Reach on the Thames is perhaps best known for its free car ferry crossing the river many times each day rather than its wildlife. But nobody told the two small porpoises we saw frolicking in the water just by the ferry…. yes, porpoises in the Thames! No pictures, I’m afraid (a porpoise doesn’t exactly hang around with a smile on its face waiting for the camera flash), so you’ll just have to believe they were there, but they certainly put a smile on Kate’s face that lasted for miles.

By 9pm we were turning into the Swale, the thread of water that separates the Isle of Sheppey residents from the rest of Britain, the rising tide sucking us in till the water shoaled and the anchor plopped to the sea bed. With the engine off, finally, the quietness surrounded us and took us into its shell so we could sleep at last, almost alone in peace with just the birds for company.

So today we awoke for the first day of our new life. The air was completely still and so was the water when it paused between the tide rushing out and returning again, Cirrus floating effortlessly between the two. The sky was cloudy and the light had an unreal silvery sheen to it, obscuring the air/water divide in the distance. We emerged slowly from the cabin, savouring the silence, keeping our own movements quiet in response.

Later we were boarded by noisy pirates in the guise of friends larking about and joining us out on the water. Here are just two of them caught in the act of boarding.

We plan to spend the Bank Holiday weekend here just drifting about at anchor or maybe sailing a little further west towards Queenborough in a few days time when we run out of food on board. The weather has been kind all day, just the lightest of winds with the sun warming the boat nicely and giving us a chance to take stock and make the mental adjustment from our life on a stationary boat to our new life of travel.

Final days in London

Only a few weekends left to us now before we leave London, our home for the last 3 years, the last 6 months of which have been afloat on Cirrus. So on what was the warmest day of the year to date we dug our bikes out of the ‘shed’ (our name for the starboard rear cabin), unfolded them and set off downstream. Our plan was to make a double crossing of the river at two different points, by land and sea.

There is a riverside sign-posted route for cyclists and pedestrians which encircles the Isle of Dogs so our first destination was to the southernmost tip of this peninsular where we would take the ancient and famous foot tunnel under the river to Greenwich. A descent by lift on one side of the river is followed by a walk through a straight and echo-ey tunnel where there is another lift up to ground level again. Or at least there should be if it is working. It is not uncommon for one or other lift to be out of order so the trick here is to choose a direction of travel, north or south, where we can descend the spiral staircase at one end and rise in the working lift at the other, thus avoiding carrying our bikes up 60 or so steps. Since today it was the south lift that was out of commission we made a quick change of plan and turned away east for our next crossing point, the Woolwich ferry.

London east of Canary Wharf cannot be described as pretty and many would use much stronger language for an industrial wasteland criss-crossed by flyovers carrying cars or trains and overflown by roaring jets taking off steeply from the City airport. But there are attractions. Nestling on a meander of the River Lee is a tiny man made paradise of wildflower meadow and freshwater ponds full of life which ignores the Docklands railway passing directly overhead. Pausing here for a while in the sunshine we too find it easy to forget, as the creatures do, that a giant city throbs and roars about us.

After battling with more dual carriageways than was healthy for us we eventually escaped past the acre or so of sugar factory which dominates the north bank of the Thames here. It was sugar, of course, that gave London much of the accumulated wealth it has today and also brought slavery to our shores but a golden syrup tin now adorns one end of this massive industrial plant telling us that at least someone still has a sense of humour.

Onwards then to our sea voyage, made with the tide just starting its flood, and Kate seen here having just taken her Kwells in preparation for the passage. The tannoy announces “All passengers must leave the vessel after docking”, clearly intended to prevent all those who might choose to drift backwards and forwards across the river all day from doing so and one can see, on a day like today, how tempted one might be to do just that.

As cyclists we disembark first, making our escape before we can be mown down by the the all-too-eager motorists behind us, then we drift over to an ice-cream van for much needed sustenance.

Gazing west towards the capital now we see many of the landmarks we will soon be leaving behind. Canary Wharf’s towers gaze down on the dome of the O2 arena while the ferry in the foreground flashes its funnels at the sugar factory opposite. The Thames Barrier strides across the river here too and it is through these arches we’ll be sailing soon. Come Easter this will be our gateway to a new life.

Strange noises

A new noise greeted us a few mornings ago as we lay warm and snug in our berth on board Cirrus.

The day before there was a fresh breeze coming in from the north east, very cold and piercing. Then after dark the clouds which had been hanging round for the last few days blew away leaving a clear, open sky. No stars are visible from central London (too much street-light pollution) but the moon shone from the black sky like there was someone up there with a spotlight shining it through a crescent-shaped slot. We just knew that every last smidgen of residual daytime heat was escaping skywards as we tucked ourselves in for the night.

Dawn came with the sound of a boat engine starting up, a sound which carried through the water into our hull. Then came the scraping sound, more than a rustle and less than a grind, of ice against the hull as somewhere, the boat began to move.

Although less than 2 millimetres thick, the ice was nevertheless continuous right across the marina, an unbroken skin to which every boat in the marina was connected. The moment one started to move, so did the skin, and each one of us felt and heard it as the skin broke up and became instead a set of icebergs bobbing about independently, right across the basin.

Thankfully this is, as yet, only very thin ice and our waterline antifouling paint is safe for the moment. But the weather pattern we have now is very static; there’s no warmth in sight for some days yet. Our lockkeeper tells us that this is the first time in at least 5 years that the basin has frozen over. Aren’t we the lucky ones then!

More noises
Kate and I were busy on board yesterday evening, minding our own business and preparing a feast of a dinner for ourselves when there came a sudden raw noise from outside that neither of us could place. The best description I can come up with is to imagine a classroom of small children all scraping the fingernails of both hands down a large, resonating blackboard. And then some. So not a pleasant noise then.

Rushing to the hatch we were confronted with the sight of an elegant yacht coming into the basin from the lock, nothing unusual in that, until you realise that it was acting as an icebreaker on the thin skin we now have across the basin, ploughing a furrow just wide enough for its own delicate hull and making this bizarre and unworldly noise which was being amplified as it bounced off the apartment blocks around us. I felt sorry for the skipper, who must have been imagining all sorts of damage to his boat as he slowly came to a halt mid way across the open space, then picked up courage again and pressed on to the nearest pontoon, amid more screeching and crunching. To anyone who has sailed in the far north inside the Arctic Circle this sound must be as common as muck but in central London I hazard a guess that it is quite rare. To be savoured, perhaps, if you like that sort of thing.

Although the cold weather is set to stay with us for a while yet, last night did see a slight warming as often happens when there is snowfall. Although seen settled on the ice here in this early morning picture it has a wet, slushy look to it and didn’t survive the day. Instead we now have a fresh wind again, biting cold to be out in and no doubt putting another layer on the ice for tomorrow.

Weekend Britain

This weekend Britain is what everybody expects Britain to be – cold and damp, the drizzle dripping off every tree and blade of grass and a cold that seeps right into the bones. We have deserted our London nest to visit East Sussex where my mother normally lives although at present she will be striding the decks of a luxury cruise ship on its final approach to Rio de Janeiro.

We took the train down from London yesterday evening after work and the bus from Wadhurst station. It was a cold and rainy evening, so arriving in the dark meant a struggle to read the station bus timetable to work out whether the bus turned round at the station or went on somewhere else. It turns out the station is a terminus so all we had to do was wait but even the driver seemed a bit perplexed when he did finally arrive. Instead of opening the doors we could see him struggling with some sort of control panel inside as he attempted to get the display at the front of the bus to change from ‘Wadhurst’ to ‘Ticehurst’. Clearly he wasn’t going to succeed and finally he gave up so we could climb on board. Barely had the doors closed when the bus shot off like a rocket, blasting long dark roads we could see nothing of from our brightly lit interior.

Somewhere along the way we figured out that the driver was foreign, Polish maybe, and it was his first day on the route. Maybe this was also his first time driving in this country, maybe he had high-jacked the bus, we thought, as he blasted down the winding country lanes.

We escaped at Tickhurst, as he pronounced it (which we rather thought was a better name for this place), beside The Bell pub in the village centre. Sadly, however, this was guarded by a wooden hoarding, as if being refurbished, so our hopes for a warming drink and a meal were thwarted. Not knowing about other pubs nearby we trudged off in the dark towards mum’s cottage until Kate spotted an Indian take-away. All was not lost and the food turned out to be well cooked and tasty, if rather lacking in ‘edge’. Once again my theory on Indian food is proven – the smaller the town, the less spicy is the food.

Finally, the Cruising Association’s home beside Limehouse basin (and Cirrus Cat) is featured in December’s Yachting monthly magazine, in case anyone is interested.

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