The only way to get around in this country, in my opinion, is by rail. If it weren’t so damned expensive, it would be the only way to travel. The trains here are fast, comfortable and mostly reliable. I’ve said as much in other articles. Can’t say enough really. Love trains. Whenever possible, that’s what my best friend and I take when going somewhere. One of the reasons is because traffic anywhere near London is horrific, any time of day and every day of the week. Where I live, I have to go over the River Thames to get to any point north of the city. Outside the centre of London that leaves me with the Dartford Tunnel and the M25 (a motorway….highway…. that encircles the capital). Both are regularly clogged with traffic for one reason or another.
This past weekend was a long one, known as Bank Holidays in Britain. The traffic would have been horrendous. And it was according to people we spoke to Friday night. My best friend and I took a train to London Victoria train station, the tube to Euston station and a London/Midlands train to Rugby….yes, the town after which the game is named. We were heading for the village of Crick where the annual Crick Boat Show was being held. Time to get serious about buying a narrowboat. This would be the weekend that was going to make or break the plan.
So, we got off at Rugby, where in 1823 William Webb Ellis broke the rules while playing football (soccer) at Rugby School and invented the game of Rugby. The town was originally called Rookby after the bird or perhaps someone’s name and the ‘by’ ending is Viking, meaning town. It was changed to Rugby (Rugtown?) which has nothing to do with floor covering, just the way locals pronounced Rook I guess. Anyway, it became Rugby where in 1937 Frank Whittle invented the jet engine. Who knew?
We had to get a taxi from the station to our hotel in Crick. That was the original intent. The Hotel IBIS was supposed to be near the Boat Show. Well, it was. Closer than Rugby at least. The taxi drove into the country and onto a road heading for Milton Keynes, that sterile town featured in the Harry Potter films. The driver barely spoke English, so we thought he had misunderstood us. I was about to say something when we pulled into an industrial plaza which seemed even more strange. Large warehouses and factories loomed above us until there it was, our hotel. In the middle of nowhere and 2 miles from the Boat Show site. We ended up walking the distance each day, there and back. Good for us I hear you say.
We had to go through the very pretty village of Crick to get there, a hamlet with around 2,000 souls. Lovely old church, three old world pubs and people who say ‘Good morning’ and Good afternoon’ when passing. Worth the 2 mile trek to the show and back each day to be sure. I thought the name Crick came from some derivative of creek, since the village is on the Leicester Line of the Grand Union Canal. But it doesn’t. Rather, it was from the Celtic for Crack Hill which overlooks Crick. So many ancient mysteries.
The Crick Boat Show took place in a huge field beside the Crick Marina. We were overwhelmed with information about narrowboats and all the accessories that come with them. We talked to people about moorings and boat licenses. We took tours of several boats, both narrow and wide beam. We gathered every brochure from many of the display booths to digest later, back at the hotel. We saw demonstrations on everything from how to wash and paint a boat to toilets that compost your poo (no live demos here). Lovely. There were stalls that sold boat engines, solar panels, wi-fi gear for boats (what else), boating furniture, boat insurance companies, boat canopy makers, one long stall that sold only sweets (was whisked by that one quickly), jewellery made by boaters, clothing for boaters and tents dedicated to societies preserving and promoting the boating life. Exhausting.
We ate very large Yorkshire Puddings filled with beef, potatoes, carrots, peas and gravy and drank pints of local ales. My favourite was Mad Monk Ale. Very smooth. The second day they had run out of that ale and I had to settle for Son-of-a-Bitch Ale. I kid you not. And, SOB, it wasn’t bad. We had subscribed to The Waterways World magazine a few weeks earlier and so were sent, along with our weekend pass bands, two VIP passes to the Waterways World lounge. Now, you have to remember that this site is a temporary one, so by lounge is meant a marquee tent with nothing in it but a place to sit, away from the madding crowd. Well, not quite nothing. It was, in fact, a large tea room, with cakes as well. Every tea known to exist and a Victoria Sponge cake to die for. I am 64 and I was the youngest (next to my best friend) one in the place. Still, it was quiet and comfortable. I guess I am getting on.
After all the talk and brochure collecting, the evening discussions about the day just past, the long walks to and from the show, the fine meals we ate while at the hotel and the meeting of people who actually live on narrowboats, the best was unexpected. We had signed up for a half hour boat cruise along the canal. The boat in question was a 40 foot model used for touring. At first we said we wouldn’t bother as we had so much to do and too many people we needed to talk to before heading for home. But we were in the vicinity and had a bit of time to kill before our next appointment with a boat builder. So, we signed up. The crew was a rough and ready sort, seamen to a man. Even the women were men. Hale and hardy the lot. The boat docked, letting off the previous tour group. “Who’s for the next cruise?” yelled one of the old salty dogs. Down to the boat we hurried.
The weather was not great this weekend. Rather cool and wet at times. This day was the worst. To commit ourselves more fully to this new venture, we had purchased his and her rain slickers from dealers from the far east who had a clothing booth at the show. Mine is green. My best friend’s is brown. It had begun to rain so we took them out of the bag they were in, ripped off any labels and put them on. What a sight we were. Ready for a hurricane if one arose. The boat crew saw the two of us approaching and we detected sniggering as we got on board. The two of us were first on and headed for the bow. It was covered because of the rain. Once everyone had boarded, off we went.
One of the crew, a chap from East London, toughest place on earth, moved toward us. Here it comes, I thought to myself. Some form of Cockney derision. He spoke. “Anyone care to steer?” he asked. He was looking right at me. I’m sure I heard him think, ‘Anyone with a coat like that better know what they’re doing’. Now, I am at best the timid sort. I don’t like to look stupid, especially in places where I’m not sure of myself….like steering a 40 foot boat along a narrow canal with boats lined along the bank while others came toward us. I have only ever rowed a boat, paddled a canoe and driven a speed boat….slowly. I found my arm was raised in the air. I had somehow volunteered.
Part of me knew I had to. Here I was, about to buy a narrowboat and I had never even driven (steered one). “Come on then,” the Cockney bruiser said, “Let’s be having you then.” I gave a long look to my best friend as I moved aft, a lamb to the slaughter. I climbed the stairs to the helm and another crewman looked me up and down, handed me the tiller and asked, “You ever done this before mate?” Of course I hadn’t and I said as much. He gave me a few tips then stood back. Like a duck to water. I was a natural, steering us clear of other boats, keeping us steady and passing another oncoming boat with no problem. The East Ender came up and said to his mate, “You can tell he’s done this before.”
“Nope,” said the real driver, “First time he says.”
“Well, he’s a natural then,” says the Cockney, “Well done son.” I was on top of the world. The rest of the day was a blur. I literally floated back along the 2 miles to the hotel. I may not drive a car here in England, but by Gawd can I steer a boat. Canal living here I come.