On April 17th Barb and I flew over to England for a ten
day trip for a first look at "Basil the King", our new
narrow boat. The flight over was fine but Heathrow was a
mess. The baggage area was crammed with irate passengers
and it took 3 hours to unload our bags. Just the thing
after a 10 hour overnight flight! The British love this
kind of thing, though. After an hour their gloomy faces
were transformed. A real mess, eh! Something to have a
good moan about. The first person to get their bags got a
standing ovation (there was nowhere to sit) and handshakes
all round. After that we ground round the M25 London
Orbital in the full flood of the rush hour and headed
South to Kent to stay with my brother Michael and his wife
Angela. Never have two smelly travelers been so glad to be
with family again!
The next few days were spent shopping for crockery, cutlery, duvets, pillows, pots, pans and all the paraphernalia for a new home afloat. Britain is a very expensive place to visit right now with the exchange rate at two dollars to the pound, but I was pleasantly surprised how little we spent to equip the boat. I think we'll come in under our expected budget.
On April 22nd we headed North for Stoke-on-Trent. Stoke used to be the beating heart of the 18th Century industrial revolution and is at the center of the Potteries district. Josiah Wedgewood financed the Trent and Mersey canal so that his pottery could be carried safely to Liverpool and beyond by boat. The jarring journey over the primitive roads of the day caused too many breakages. Wedgewood is still there, along with a few other famous potters, but most of the old companies have moved to Asia or gone out of business. The trade on the canal is over.
Our destination was the Chapelcroft Bed & Breakfast, situated in the rolling green hills above Stoke. Next day we went to Piper's to look at the boat. We had arranged the trip long before when it was expected that the boat would be almost completely fitted out. However, the building schedule has been delayed twice and all that awaited us was the completed steelwork. We met with our marine surveyor, Mike Carter (no relation), and then went in to talk to the boat artist, Len, who will paint the name and registration panels on the boat. The rest of the day was spent in detailed discussions with Simon Piper and Mike about the fit-out of the boat. Notes are attached. Although the boat is behind the original schedule, Simon was adamant that he'd have it ready in time for the water trial and handover on July 7th. In spite of the delays, we were excited to see the completed hull and it was a very productive day.
Mike was not very impressed with the cabin construction. The sides of the cabin are 5mm steel sheet with no strengthening members. The reason for this is cosmetic, to minimize the ripples in the steel that occur at weld points. He felt that if the corner of the cabin hit a bridge hard, the cabin would 'parallelogram'. I pointed out that the steel is 1mm thicker than most builders use, but he didn't like that either because the added weight makes the boat roll more. However, he liked the construction of the baseplate and hull and the overall quality of the welding. As he said, "I could easily talk you into a more expensive boat. You get what you pay for". Later that afternoon we drove in a steady drizzle to visit vendors of floor coverings and curtains. We selected a dark green carpet for the cabins and wood-effect vinyl for the bathroom. The range of curtain material was disappointing so we'll probably get fed up with our drapes after a year or two. The portholes will be shaded at night by plump stuffed stoppers that double as cushions by day.
After a nine hour day without lunch we collapsed gratefully into the Talbot, a quintessentially English pub which also happens to do great food. We mostly ate in pubs. The quality of pub food is dramatically better than it was years ago and there is the added benefit of being able to reacquaint the palate with a range of fine cask-conditioned hand-pumped ales. Barb stuck to Cabernet Sauvignon with the occasional Pils lager when she could get it.
The next day we said goodbye to Lyn at "Chapelcroft" and set off down the M6 towards Birmingham in improving weather. The weather was generally good; we only had the one day of rain, and England lay gloriously green, clean and bursting with Spring flowers. Michael (the brotherly version) lent us a neat gadget - a TomTom GPS navigator. It is the best of breed, and we got attached to the smooth talker saying "Bear Right" and "Take the third exit at the roundabout". It unerringly found the site of our intended winter mooring even though Mapquest and two other route planning web sites had rejected the post code (Zip code) as non-existent.
Ventnor Farm Marina lies quietly in undulating green farmland between Warwick and Rugby next to the Grand Union canal. It exceeded our expectations in every way. Run by Paul Flude, an eccentric visionary who suffers no fools but has a heart of gold, it is an oasis of ecological bliss in the heart of England. My description of Paul is based on talking to his "Harbourmasters" who showed us round. He was in a meeting, so we were not able to evaluate him personally. The Harbourmasters inspect the boats daily and do the chores in exchange for discounted residential moorings. The marina consists of two sections with an ornamental lake between. One section is complete and full of boats. We picked a spot in the new section which is just a huge hole in the ground at present but will be ready to receive us in September. Everything is discretely landscaped to hide the roads from the boats and the boats from the farmhouse. The shores are fringed with reeds and plants to encourage the wildlife and the berms are planted with hundreds of trees. The resident grebe floated in solitary sentry duty. A very special place indeed.
The last couple of days were spent doing more shopping, wandering my ancestral home village of Woodchurch and spending quality time with the family. The woods around Woodchurch were filled with ethereal clouds of bluebells and the newborn lambs were romping in the fields. The crop-du-jour right now is oil-seed rape, which lay in fields of blinding yellow spread across the landscape.
On April 27th we returned our rental car at Heathrow having added over 800 turgid miles to the odometer and climbed aboard our British Airways flight to Phoenix. Now we are home reading canal books and generally excited about our impending new life.
That's if I survive a week hurtling through some of the world's wildest whitewater on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon in mid-May. An altogether different type of boating.