Our narrowboat Christmas
Katie Fforde, 66, is a bestselling novelist, and researches each of her books meticulously. She also enjoys writing about falling in love, which she thinks is the best thing in the world. Her book of festive short stories,
The Christmas Stocking, is out now.
When we were first married, long before I even thought of being a writer, my husband Desmond and I decided to set up a narrowboat hotel business. this was because Desmond was a Merchant Navy officer and was really interested in canals, and I had done a cookery course designed for debutantes. While it would be incredibly hard work, it would mean we weren’t separated for months at a time while Desmond was at sea.
after our first season, in 1974, we decided to bring the boat up to london for Christmas. It meant the whole family could come to us, I would cook and we’d go on a trip around london.
My family – particularly my mother – were always very critical of my tidiness and they were doubtful that Desmond and I could run a business that involved feeding people and not end up in chaos. I was the less bright of two sisters and had a lot to prove.
throughout the journey from Rugby – which on a narrowboat takes some time – I was cleaning, tidying, sorting, washing curtains, scrubbing floors and throwing away bag after bag of rubbish.
My husband was annoyingly insouciant about it all, convinced the novelty of having Christmas on a boat would overcome their critical instincts. We hadn’t been married very long, and he didn’t know them as well as I did.
I had always been a bit of a family joke – being very literal-minded and not going to university, and I knew they were all longing to sigh about the folly of giving up our secure (if boring) jobs to take passengers on holiday as a way of making a living. I was determined not to give them any excuse – which was partly why we had issued the invitation to host Christmas on our boat.
soon my parents, sister, aunt and uncle, and my sister’s godmother were all going to descend. I became one of those people for whom every little detail of Christmas has to be perfect or the end of the world comes. luckily I had been cooking for up to 14 people all summer and I wasn’t worried about the food. Christmas was much simpler in those days – we didn’t have gorgeous television adverts with soft toys and sad songs to set a standard, so as long as there was turkey, brussels sprouts and roast potatoes, anything else was a pleasant surprise. We found the local supermarket and got the necessary.
but there was still the final cleaning to do. We had no electricity so the floor had to be brushed by hand. the various repairs that had gone on had left a bit of a mess and there were bulkheads (walls to the uninitiated) to be painted.
on Christmas morning we were taking our boat to the meeting point, where the elderly could get onto the boat without difficulty.
My husband got up first and came back into the bedroom looking worried. “I don’t know what’s happened,” he said. “but there’s soot all over the saloon!” My heart sank. Had we been vandalised in the night? We were in london after all – anything could have happened. Panic began to set in as I imagined having to repaint everything.
then he said, “but I found this by the stove,” and handed me a Christmas stocking. It took me a worryingly long time to realise he’d been joking about the soot. Father Christmas would never mess up a girl’s narrowboat when she’d spent so long cleaning it, even if he could have got down the narrow chimney of our little wood burner. How Desmond had found the time to put together a stocking I couldn’t imagine, but I was so touched I almost cried.
We’ve spent a great many Christmases together since then but none quite so different or quite so romantic. our guests absolutely loved their trip along the canal. I realised people aren’t actually that critical, and things don’t have to be perfect to be perfect. and you can always rely on Father Christmas to add a bit of magic when you need it…
✢ the Christmas stocking and other stories by Katie Fforde (Arrow), £7.99, is now available in paperback.
“We had no electricity – the floor had to be brushed by hand”
Christmas on a narrowboat was unforgettable