I was having a ponder the other day as to when narrowboating transitioned from ‘family holiday pastime’ to ‘serious religion’ status. I think it coincided with the time my brother decided he wanted to bugger off with his mates and my mother declared for a luxury spa, readily forsaking those all too familiar pleasures of tea brewing and sarnie making but with the added allure of a dump through toilet and bum-clinging shower curtain. I ask you, who in their right mind would prefer a guest slot at Champneys to being chief cook and bottle washer on a 60ft narrowboat of 80s vintage?
So that left my dad and I as last boaters standing but I don’t think we ever thought about calling time on our watery peregrinations..in fact, having got rid of the lightweights we went hard core and booked a fortnight. Dad only had one stipulation – he didn’t care how brutal the route, how many lockmiles, how early he’d have to get up or how long he’d have to go, as long as there was a pub at the end of each day he’d happily sign off on whatever I proposed. How trusting! Cue meticulous planning which in those days involved no internet aids, just my well-thumbed and jam-stained Nicholsons, a piece of paper and a pencil. God, I loved this bit, indulging so many voyaging fantasies…I got carried away one year only realising belatedly we couldn’t do the K&A because it wasn’t actually restored yet.
Sadly, because I didn’t keep a diary and photos seem to have gone AWOL, the trips we did no longer sit in my memory as discrete journeys, but have become somewhat conflated and confused. To the best of my knowledge, we completed three ‘epics’, each time hiring with Weltonfield just up from Long Buckby; together they gave us an amalgam of experience that took in the East Midlands Ring, the Four Counties, the Cheshire and the Stourport Rings, with the odd sidebar. In lieu of a clear chronology I have episodic vignettes, and in these some of my favourite memories of my late dad. Like the time he went on holiday with one of the first ‘mobile’ phones (his poor old driver had to come down with new battery packs every other day). Funny how he’d only ever ring the office when a boat was coming the other way, and really funny how he always needed to stand in the bow to make his call. Ostentatious or what! I also seem to have a hazy recollection of him descending in a lock with the tiller in one hand, the brick phone to his ear in the other, trying to make himself understood to the Italian receptionist of the pensione that my mother had taken herself off to that year. I think there was a fair bit of ‘pronto’-ing going on as the signal faded…Ridiculous really.
And then there was that glorious sunny evening on the Peak Forest when he was sitting back on the stern, with his whiskey in one hand and his glasses about to drop off his head. I was just about to warn him when the glasses fell, he made to grab them, he missed, and in they plopped followed by his tumbler, collateral damage of his clumsy save. Or when he stepped aboard the boat being steered by me at a very gentle speed (it was, m’ lud ) after he’d closed up a lock, only to fluff it and end up sitting in the canal, complete with bright yellow sou’wester hood atop his bonce like a distress beacon. Complete and utter sense of humour failure! Didn’t talk to me for hours… And I know I shouldn’t but I can’t help it…the time he was telephoning mum from a red booth with not those teensy panes of glass in but with those large single panes on each side. He dialled, popped his 10p in, leant back and promptly fell out of the box as there was no glass in it. Dad wasn’t hurt but I think I may have bust a rib laughing…
There was also stuff that was almost ritual for us…me eating thick slabs of home-made fruitcake for breakfast – because I could! Him frying up spam for doorstep butties – because he could! (And it was banned at home). Us both stumbling along towpaths on our return from the pub in tunnel black darkness – we didn’t ever have a torch because mum didn’t trust dad not to lose it. (This was the man that lost three mallets in one holiday so maybe she had a point.) The mandated evening at the pub, with chips the dish du jour, followed by lengthy sessions taking on the trivia machine. Standing so long in one place gave me horrendous leg cramps in the wee hours…but going home with a swag bag of pound coins (nearly 80 quid one year!) was sufficient compensation.
We somehow managed to lose reverse gear, twice in successive years, almost to the day. The first time we only found out as we sallied forth into Boggs Lock – I never knew a lock gate could open that far against a head of water. We also changed role over those years….while I did most of the on the level steering (dad had a low boredom threshold and was prone to tacking) locks were originally divied up with me on the wheels, dad at the helm. Over time though his eyes went and it was after clattering another wing wall and damaging our canal cred, that I suggested we swap. I’ve never really left the tiller since. I do remember dad coming back to the boat after a lock once with a big smile on his face..on asking him the cause of his amusement he pointed to a chap who he’d been deep in conversation with and told me he’d been asked ‘So how are you enjoying your holiday with your…er…partner?’, obviously fixed on the notion that the young piece he could see on the tiller was my dad’s floozy. After he’d stopped snorting, dad informed the bloke that I was in fact his daughter; the guy was simply amazed that a father and daughter could spend two weeks happily together doing what we were doing, given that he and his own daughter apparently couldn’t even spend 30 minutes in the same room together without arguing.
Those particular trips, though I probably didn’t know it at the time, led me to worship at the canal altar, I’m sure of it. And while occasionally the odd brainfade makes me wish I had a neat documented record of what we did so I could remember where the hell a certain thing happened, I know I’m extraordinarily lucky to have had the experience so I can have the memory. Thanks, dad.