SLOW BOAT TO CH­ESTER

Stephen Dowsett could have driven and been there in un­der five hours. In­stead he de­cided to cruise his 45ft trad stern Quidli­bet to visit his daugh­ter, start­ing from the River Wey in Sur­rey, a re­turn jour­ney of over 600 miles and 300 locks

Canal Boat - - Contents -

On the first part of his trip from the deep south to the north west, Stephen muses about art, Tolkien and Mandy Rice-Davies

Deep down I must have known that I was des­tined to buy and own a nar­row boat ever since my fam­ily and I helped a boat lock up the Caen Hill Flight one Sun­day morn­ing over 25 years ago. But long be­fore I had the green light to go ahead, I spot­ted an of­fer I couldn’t refuse. A set of brand new mixer taps were on sale in a su­per­mar­ket, one for a bath with shower at­tach­ment, one for the wash basin and one for the kitchen sink – and at £27 the lot an ab­so­lute bar­gain. Noth­ing to lose, even though the prospec­tive boat had yet to reach the draw­ing board stage that was still eight years away.

Armed with taps I now set about the se­ri­ous busi­ness of sav­ing for a hull. Things were pro­ceed­ing well un­til said funds were utilised for a de­posit for my el­dest daugh­ter’s flat. Start again. Things were pro­ceed­ing well un­til said funds were utilised for a de­posit for my youngest daugh­ter’s flat. Start again. Things were pro­ceed­ing well un­til said funds were utilised for both daugh­ter’s wed­dings within six weeks of each other. Even­tu­ally the per­se­ver­ance paid off and the day came when I was the proud owner of a sail­away, beau­ti­fully built by Nick Thorpe and his team.

As it was a sail­away, I needed some hot and cold wa­ter on board so the ob­vi­ous thing to do was to fit the bath tap over the bath, which I had in­stalled. It was a proud mo­ment the day I filled the boat’s wa­ter tank for the first time and turned on those taps – only to dis­cover that the bath tap

Now four years af­ter fit­ting the sec­ond set of bath taps I’m now at the be­gin­ning of an epic jour­ney along the English rivers and canals

leaked so had to be re­placed. The re­ally sad thing was that al­though the taps had a three-year guar­an­tee, the guar­an­tee had ex­pired over five years pre­vi­ously!

Now, four years af­ter fit­ting the sec­ond set of bath taps, I’m at the be­gin­ning of an epic jour­ney along the English rivers and canals.

On the sec­ond day of my planned 600-mile round trip from the River Wey in Sur­rey to Ch­ester in Cheshire, I ar­rived at Maiden­head and moored down­stream from the mas­sive rail­way bridge cross­ing the River Thames.

The over­cast start to the day had fi­nally given way to a sunny late af­ter­noon and evening. Hav­ing seen a pro­gramme on tele­vi­sion ear­lier in the month about the Royal Academy and the rit­u­als of in­duct­ing artists cho­sen by fel­low aca­demi­cians, I had de­cided that I re­ally ought to join their ranks. The question re­mained how and where to start my artis­tic en­deav­ours. Pi­casso had al­ready cor­nered the mar­ket in cu­bism and I didn’t see the point of re­vis­it­ing pointil­lism. The pointil­lists had al­ready made their point.

Ev­ery house­hold in the coun­try had at one time or an­other em­u­lated Emin’s un­made bed. Banksy had cor­nered up­mar­ket graf­fiti on vir­tu­ally ev­ery street cor­ner in the land.

Un­de­terred, a cou­ple of weeks ear­lier I had vis­ited my lo­cal art shop. They had just what I was look­ing for – a 36-piece sketch­ing kit com­plete with pen­cil sharp­ener and two erasers! I hadn’t seen such an abun­dance of pen­cils since pri­mary school and even then I hadn’t been trusted with any­thing sharper than an HB pen­cil. But here in the box was a pha­lanx of pen­cils in­clud­ing a deadly 6H – I knew that with these im­pos­ing rods of graphite I would be up for nom­i­na­tion in no time. But the best bit of all was the price – a real bar­gain at a penny un­der £13. It seemed a very rea­son­able price to pay for my prospec­tive el­e­va­tion to the Royal Academy.

I knew that ly­ing un­der a ta­ble back home was a proper sketch­pad. Pad and pen­cils had made their way to the boat. In­spired by the qual­ity of my kit and the stu­pen­dous view of the rail­way bridge

span­ning the Thames flanked by trees, and through its cen­tre arch, the mag­nif­i­cent stone road bridge in the dis­tance. The view was per­fect. I was in­spired. I knew I couldn’t go wrong.

How wrong can one be? I think I once read that Michelangelo could draw a per­fectly straight line free­hand, or was it a per­fect cir­cle? I found out that it is very dif­fi­cult draw­ing a straight line even with a ruler.

Draw­ing the grace­ful curves of the bridges’ arches free­hand was even more of a night­mare. The erasers are al­ready wear­ing a bit thin. This was go­ing to be more dif­fi­cult than I first thought. You should try draw­ing a mil­lion bricks. Even us­ing a very fine pen­cil, the process be­comes tire­some af­ter a cou­ple of min­utes. I re­sorted to the bar of graphite. If Grayson Perry can be out­ra­geous then damn it so can I.

I per­se­vered for an hour more when out of the blue, a Dutch barge ar­rived and moored di­rectly in front of me com­pletely block­ing my view. That put the ki­bosh on my first foray into be­com­ing an ac­claimed artist. Still most of my pen­cils were still in­tact and I hadn’t yet worn out my erasers com­pletely. I made up my mind to find an­other suit­able sub­ject – only next time it wouldn’t in­volve draw­ing bricks. In any case a pile of bricks had al­ready been ex­hib­ited at the Tate.

The fol­low­ing day dawned dull due to it be­ing very over­cast. The at­mos­phere was ex­tremely op­pres­sive as I mo­tored up the long stretch of river bounded by woods and steep hills, over­looked by Clive­den House sur­rounded by mist in the far dis­tance. Decades ear­lier Clive­den had hosted the Pro­fumo scan­dal. This day the val­ley could have dou­bled for the set of Mor­dor in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. An im­pres­sion re­in­forced by a mas­sive steel sculp­ture of a beast frozen in time on the banks of the river and guard­ing the path to the house. I al­most ex­pected to see Mount Doom as I rounded the bend at the head of the val­ley!

In the next lock I found my­self be­hind a three-storey River Cruiser called Ma­jes­tic

Lady. When in locks, it is cus­tom­ary to chat with the crews on other boats shar­ing the lock, so I said to the lady at the stern: “The boat was ob­vi­ously named af­ter you…” My com­pli­ment was some­what un­der­mined when she replied in a fit of Mandy Rice-Davies hon­esty: “Thank you – but you wouldn’t have said that be­fore I had put my make-up on…”

Even­tu­ally I emerged on to a more open stretch of wa­ter and passed a water­side build­ing proudly dis­play­ing a ban­ner: “Learn how to row prop­erly here”. This was ob­vi­ously aimed at sin­gle folks be­cause most mar­ried cou­ples who are boaters have al­ready mas­tered the art of row­ing good and proper!

The GRP boat named Drifter had cer­tainly lived up to its name; hav­ing drifted onto a weir, it was now in a very sorry state hav­ing been sal­vaged and hoisted on board a work barge moored ad­ja­cent to the weir. Two other ob­jects drift­ing in the Thames caught my eye.

The first was the sad sight of a dead swan. I’m sure the Swan Up­pers would be up­set at the loss of this ma­jes­tic bird. It was cer­tainly up­set­ting see­ing it rest­ing side­ways on the wa­ter slowly drift­ing to­wards the cap­i­tal. The sec­ond was a rather lively grey squir­rel swim­ming the width of the river. He wasn’t drift­ing nor do­ing the breast­stroke but mak­ing ex­cel­lent progress with a four-legged front crawl; his tail stream­ing be­hind him.

His­toric Clive­den House

An un­usual sight on the Ox­ford Canal

Repo­si­tion­ing a lock gate

Mak­ing good progress

The tran­quil scene at Braun­ston

Busy CRT staff on the tow­path

Ap­proach­ing Maiden­head

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