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Sunday, June 02, 2013

Melancholy American

"...and I have been a stranger in a strange land." ~Exodus 2:22

    Our friends had turned and gone; we spent two days pouring over our Nicholson Guide Books, making plans. We walked up to the next lock as my best beloved and I often do, to get the lay of the land so to speak, and make sure we could turn NB Valerie under the bridge hole at the entrance of the nearby marina.
Train with plane above near our mooring
   While our mooring looked like a peaceful slice of countryside, appearances were deceiving. Trains ran very close to the cut with regularly increasing service between London and Cambridge. We were also directly under the flight path in and out of Stanstead airport with planes accelerating and decelerating directly above us every two and half minutes. Depending on the wind and the weather, the flight path cris-crosses the entire length of the River Stort.
   Our plan took us back down the Stort for a stay overnight at Royden, then  we would continue on to the junction with the Lee Navigation where we would make a hard right turn, stop at the town of Ware for groceries, go up through three locks and moor in Hertfordshire. Les had made plans with family and friends a month previously to give them a call when we arrived in the county town of Hertford. We wanted to catch up with everyone, share some good meals, and enjoy each others' company. We were both looking forward to having some fun with children, grandchildren and a couple of Les and Val's close friends of many years.
Les' eagle eyes never miss firewood waiting for us.
We could not get the boat in any closer to the towpath but the tree stump made a good landing for Les to stop and pick up some more logs. The one good thing about this navigation is the plentiful supply of wood. Resident boaters didn't seem interested in claiming any for themselves. Most own plastic cruisers. Narrow boats are in the minority up here, and most of those have marina moorings.
   Ten locks took us down to Royden. Finally we moored up above Brick lock near Royden Mill Pleasure Park. We were tired and played out, lunging at the bit to make it to Hertford. I wrote in my diary: "Feeling melancholy and sad today. For the first time in 20 months I am homesick for America--for familiar things that don't take forever to figure out; for the ease of life in my country. I miss Dissmores lattes first thing every morning, piping hot and ready because the baristas knew me.
   I broke down and cried twice today. It seems like everything is much more difficult over here and I am weary of the make do and mend attitude just because it is the way it has always been done. The war has been over for over fifty years. It is okay to innovate and make life easier. Part of this is being on the bloody Lee and Stort navigation. We will never return here once we escape. What a miserable experience. It seems to magnify issues--even ones we don't know are lurking under the surface--like being homesick.
   Les gave me 4 pounds to buy ice creams from Hunsdon lock cottage shop as we were going down the lock. I told the shop keeper "I'm from America and I cannot remember the brand but what we want is vanilla ice cream on a stick, dipped in chocolate." 
   "Okay" he says and disappears to take an inordinately long time to find two frozen ice creams. His wife returned smiling proudly, holding a tray with two cake style cones filled with two small scoops of white ice cream adorned with a thick bar of chocolate sticking out of each one. 
   "This isn't what I ordered," and I described it for her. 
   She said, "Oh you wanted Magnums." 
   "Yes," said I. Her husband replied, "Oh dear. Well we are out of those." 
   So I took them, but I cried so hard I couldn't eat all mine. I basically had two licks and gave mine to Les. I am a foreigner in this country and it seems I cannot even order ice cream in England and be understood due to my accent. Ah well. Here's hoping tomorrow is better." 
   Sunshine greeted us the next day--a bank holiday Monday and the first sunny bank holiday in almost a year and a half since I'd arrived in England! Everyone and their mothers' brothers' sisters' cousins' sons and daughters were out in full force.
What you cannot see are the little boats in front and on the other side of us!
   The water was awash with small motorized cruisers, row boats, paddle boats, kayaks and canoes: single double and plastic rafts filled with families, all bobbing about like bright holiday ornaments. It was immediately clear they had been given no instructions on how to pass other boats on the river. They cut across our bow, passing on our our left and our right. Boats rammed other boats, and oars flailed in and out of the water. Mini cruisers zig-zagged around each other attempting to forestall a collision. Out of the lock glides NB Valerie into their midst. This must be what it feels like when a sailboat and an oil tanker cross paths on the ocean!
   The towpath was rammed with people walking, jogging, biking, dogs wandered everywhere and children ran and called to one another. They literally hung off the lock gate beams in fours and sixes, laying bikes down in our way as they stopped to watch us come down the locks. 
   It took twice as long to get through them because so many folks wanted to know how the locks worked, were we on vacation, did we live aboard, why did we have all that wood on the roof, where was I from, how did we get groceries, was it cold in winter, where had we been and where were we going--the questions were endless. Children queued up to help me push against the beams to close and open the locks gates.
   The human energy pulsing around us was exhausting. Les loves to chat with everyone. He's patient and good humored about it all. I don't like crowds--I feel hemmed in and claustrophobic. I've learned how to function as an extrovert in order to move ahead in the world but in my soul I am an introvert, preferring quiet and the companionship of a chosen few friends and loved ones. 
   At Brick lock a local boater informed us the Lee Navigation was closed--a gate had come off its hinge at Stanstead lock four days previously and apparently those in charge were still shaking their heads and attempting to figure out how to lift the gate and place it back on its hinges. The bloke said CaRT (Canal and river Trust) had not issued a stoppage or restriction notice; they were terrible about keeping boaters informed on the Lee and Stort for some reason. 
   Les and I looked at each other with the dull realization that we were not going to make it to Hertford at all--ever. We refused to hang about waiting for god knows how long until Stanstead lock was repaired. We weren't going to make our rendezvous with friends and family after all.
   On the spot we decided to continue on down the Lee Navigation to Waltham Abbey--another eight locks--moor the night and then make a strategic exit off this damned navigation. We swallowed hard as we thought about everything waiting in front of us--the endless cruising, lock after lock, until we made it back through London and out the other side to Kensal Green. 
   As we left Waltham Abbey the next morning under a leaden sky threatening rain, we encountered many more local boaters heading back from the Little Venice Cavalcade of Boats. We warned them about the broken lock gate on the Lee. Most were surprised at the news and grateful we had stopped to mention it. Les told a bloke from Bishops Stortford that the Elsan Disposal there was broken down and padlocked shut. 
   "No, it's not broken down," he said disgustedly. "Local boaters moored up there have padlocked it to keep the likes of you from using it," meaning of course, us continuous cruisers--tourists in the minds of those boaters who break the rules and stay moored up in one spot months and years at a time instead of moving on after fourteen days max.
   The man had the decency to shake his head at the behavior of his neighbors, but all I could think of was Jacquie and Stein, who cruised all the way up there in need of the Elsan service, locked out at the whim of the locals. His attitude underscored how I felt about our overall experience. Disgusted...
   Another geezer who kept his boat at Royden Boat Club told us how much cleaner the lower Lee navigation was now then twenty years ago.  
   "You should have seen it--rubbish everywhere and open sewage floating in the water. It is so much better now than it used to be." Les and I looked at each other in disbelief! The lower Lee truly must have been appalling because it was far from pristine now, giving the Coventry canal second place in our minds as one of the filthiest sections of canal in the system.
   The rain played with us all day as we worked our way down through five locks to Stonebridge where we felt safe enough for one night moored amongst a line of other boats--something we rarely ever do. We were told CaRT had pulled the volunteer lock keeper from Stonebridge Lock due to the violent crime and high drug use that went on there. 
   Up early again, we cruised on back through the industrial waysides, the crowded tenements, endless miles of apartment blocks, miles of breasted up continuous moorers and their floating garbage, until we finally made it to the junction of the Lee Navigation and the Hertford Union arm. It was closed for repairs when we cruised out of London. We opted not to continue down to Limehouse. The broken gates on the arm had been fixed and we were making the most of this short cut. 
   Up three locks, the view changed from graffiti decorated industrial decor to one long side of Victoria Park and very few boats moored! What a change! We were back on the canal system again, headed for canal side mooring at Kings Cross which Stein and Jacquie had mentioned were a safe place to fetch up.
Heavy metal lock gates. Locks on part of the Stort are an odd width--larger than a single lock but not large enough to accommodate two boats side by side.
Very few decent mooring places anywhere on the Lee and Stort.
   We endured so much to get up on the Lee and Stort only to find locks left open and paddles left up as boaters cruised out, making double work for us; metal lock gates which were far heavier than the gi-normous oak double locks on the Grand Union canal; extremely low bridges which took our chimney off several times; both sides of the Lee and Stort were shallow and decent mooring was hard to find; residents displayed an attitude that seemed disparaging of anyone not "from around here," as illustrated by the padlocked Elsan at Bishops Stortford; lee and Stort boaters seldom helped while they waited their turn at the locks--they just sat on their boats and waited for us to close all the gates, empty-and-fill the locks, and wind the paddles up and down. They seemed surprised whenever we came up and offered to help them out. We ran into a local demeanor about foreigners which implied, "This is the England of the Raj--and the jewel in its crown--and we like it this way."
   All this might have been worth it if we had found God's Paradise at the end but we didn't; we've seen far more beautiful, tranquil and pristine places on the northern canals.  
Taken on the way up the Lee and Stort Navigation. In the case of this waterway it certainly seems true!


Anonymous said...


what's that British saying..."Stay calm and carry on?.". Well forget that, you gotta cry that stuff out, and call people on their crap. I'm glad you went off on that stupid lady who didn't have her dog on the leash. I think the world would be a better place if people should simply respect each other, respect themselves, and lend a helpful hand to someone in need.
Speaking of having to deal with crap, I've been sick for 3 weeks with a cold and cough, so I finally went to the doc. He was like "You have bronchitis, I'm glad you came in." I got some meds, and I feel a lot better. I called my mom and she said, "Well, you know you have to lose weight?" I promptly told her being fat doesn't cause bronchitis, and hung up. Usually, I let her comments slide, but since I've been sick, my patience has been worn thin and people are getting the truth, and nothing but the truth the past 2 weeks. Actually it has been refreshing for me to draw a line with my clients, my job, and my husband because i tend to just keep a stiff upper lip in situations and take on more tasks and burdens for no reason. Its just funny that i just had to be sick so i can just slow down and take stock of what is important---my health and my darn sanity.
Anyway, your awesome, and they need someone like you in England. I will always have the good memories of Pullman toi, but would I go back? Heck no!!! Big hugs, love you!!

From Christina, from across the pond, over the hills, up and down some mountains, and in Seattle.

Elsie said...

Hi Jacq ! Hope you're feeling better today. After reading your adventures it's certainly a place to avoid. Love to you and Les, Elsie & Eric

Neil Corbett said...

Oh Jaq, you made me feel so sad for you reading about how miserable you were! I wanted to jump in the car and come and give you a hug! :-) then, of course, I realised this was all from a few weeks ago. Hope you quickly recovered your happy disposition.
And how sad you haven't liked the Lee and Stort. We bought Herbie there 6 years ago and were trapped ABOVE Stanstead lock for some weeks. It's the best bit, and the local boaters were all very welcoming and helpful. We've been back twice and enjoyed both trips but reading your and Ducks2Water's blogs we are very disappointed it has gone downhill so much in the last 3 years.I am appalled that CarT are allowing people to do things like padlocking the Elsan. What a pity.
Kath (nb Herbie)

Ian and Irene Jameison said...

Having read of your exploits on the Lee and Stort, we are now in two minds whether to attempt it this year if at all. With an aged dog on board good, moorings are a priority. Friends of ours cruised the rivers several years ago and thought it a wonderful experience. Maybe today there are a different breed of boaters to what there was then.

Love reading your blog, very entertaining.


Irene & Ian nb Free Spirit

Anonymous said...

First step. Stop. Turn to Les and ask for a big hug. Do it again. Now two things I have discovered about travelling and about England in general. Things are not the way they were at home. And home (wwas) the USA.

On the surface except for a few obvious things (driving on the left for example)the place seems the same. However your American west accent gives you away as yes a foreigner. It would be the same if Les went to Pullman Washington and went to a retail outlet to purchase something, he has a foreign accent.

On the blog, your accent doesn't appear.)

However firends who've been in Canada for years and now live in the UK on NB Garnet their accent never left them so they'd always be identified here as Brits. And they
are now in their homeland and fit right in. They never became Canadian
in that sense.

As to the lousy attitude of people and poor condition ofthe waterway.

Consider this a short term loss, and experience not to be repeated
and maybe your experience shall be
a guide to not go to the Lee and
Stort naigations either. You do have
a much longer alternate route through London so use it and leave the problems behind. At least
an aqueduct in your floating situation as opposed to a bridge
as on Interstate 5 has not collapsed blocking highway traffic from Canada.

All of this shall too pass...keep your chin up Jaq, we are all on your side; oddball ice creams aside.

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Oh Christina!! How lovely to hear from you! I'm so sorry you've been feeling crappy. Good on you for hanging up on your mom. You certainly don't need any S*&t from her.
Miss you and wish I could give you a big hug--and a pot of my homemade chicken noodle soup!
Love JaqXX

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Elsie,
Thank you for your kind regards. I am better now that we are off the Lee and Stort. My homesickness took me completely by surprise! Les sends his love.

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Well Kath,
we think a lot of those continuous moorers up above Three Mills and onward were moved out of the London canal system after having overstayed. The upper reaches of the Lee are apparently the best part of the navigation but unfortunately we never made it up there. The River Stort is a different kettle of fish and we don't recommend it--at all.
Thank you so much for kind concern--I appreciate it immensely. Poor Les could only hold me while I cried, having never been a stranger in a strange land--only a short term visitor! I am fine now. The Wey is gorgeous!

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Irene,
I'm so glad you enjoy our posts. We are so fortunate to live this mostly wonderful life! As I mentioned to another boater above, we think the continuous moorers hanging about on the lower Lee navigation from above Three Mills Lock on up are recent evictions from London canals. The Upper Lee is the best part and has good moorings and Hertford is supposedly quite nice but its a long slog after Three mills to somewhere clean and safe. If you decide to do it we recommend you take the Hertford Union arm onto the Lee. You can moor up near Victoria Park on the Hertford Union and be safe. Leave very early and be prepared to continue on until you get to Waltham Abbey. Moor above town lock right adjacent to the Lea Valley water Park where there is light and safety at night. Then when you've had a few nice days there, go straight up past the junction to Ware and then to Hertford. Avoid the Stort at all costs.
Hugs to you, Ian and your dog!

Ian and Karen said...

Oh dear you poor things. You have been having a rough time. Hope you are back to your usual cheery selves again now. Love to you both.

Jacquie said...

Oh Jaq, made me feel so sad all over again. I just remember when we met up again, and we just fell into one anothers arms for a cuddle. I knew how you felt, even I was so homesick, and I'm only from Solihull. Even when times are tough and frustrating,(seldom) we usually can take the p*** and have a laugh, but this place just brought us down so much. But as we know, things can only get better, and they do, and have. You always know where we are. It was such a shame neither of us took pictures together, like we always do, as we did have such a laugh, trying to see the funny side of it all. But hell I'm glad the minute we reached Limehouse. xx Love to Les.

Dave,Beryl Bradshaw said...

Hi Jaq
Just remember the better places and people Home sickness hits
everyone not much you can do about it
I remember having it bad in the Faulklands but rough toughty airmen cann't admit it Beryl left back in Germany Only 6 mths wed we laugh about it now.
Thing we will give the Lee a miss.
Looks kike Les will be busy with the chain saw all our luv Beryl & Dave

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Yes Bryce you are correct. I did turn to Les and did hug me, and I am so grateful we have each other.

As for the accent--in the States every time Les opened his mouth and spoke people became enchanted, and fell over themselves to say hello. An English accent in catnip in America; I can assure that has never happened over here to me!

We are off the Lee and Stort now and things are fine. Thank you for your concern.

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Thank you Karen. We are on the Wey now and it is gorgeous!! Our experience on the Lee and Stort took us both by surprise. Les had never experienced anything like it seven years of boating. We are fine now!
Love Jaq

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Oh Jacquie--not that I would ever want to drag anyone else through misery bit I have to say it really helped having you and Stein there for a bit--if only to testify we are not exaggerating the dismal River Stort or the stress of the entire experience.

We did laugh together and we were happy you and Stein got back to the canals and the lovely pace of life and lovely boaters we all enjoy so much.

As soon as we made it to Three Mills we felt much better!
Love to you both,
Jaq and LesXX

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Thank you Dave for sharing your experience of homesickness. You and Beryl must have been wrecked to be separated by war. thank goodness you made it through and returned home.

I am all right now. I have just never really experiences homesickness before and it grabbed me by the nape of the neck and shook me up.

It was lovely to be back on the regular system with boaters like ourselves--friendly, cheerful, laid back, helpful.
Take care you two.

Tom and Jan said...

Hi Jaq,
We haven't met (YET!) but read your blog. Having seen and experienced the 'bad' and the 'ugly' we hope you have started to look forward to the 'good'! There's plenty of 'lovely' England to see and since we arrived two years ago we've met some wonderful and kind locals. As the former US Secretary of State used to say "Get mad... and get over it!" Life is too short to spend time dwelling on the disappointments.
Chuckled about your ice cream story as I remember being in a hotel in Long Beach Cal and asking for tea with my breakfast. The water returned with a can of cold tea from the fridge. Not quite what I had expected! :-)
All the best to you both

Tom & Jan
nb Waiouru

Unknown said...

Hi both sorry to hear of your bad expereriences on the lee and stort we ve been twice last time last Feb and had no problems at all its strange how different it can be for others! We moored at broxbourne and tottenham hale no problems! Shame you missed hertford too! When you are in guildford i can recommend the Thai restaurant on top of the multi storey car park odd location but great views and excellent food yumm! take care hugs to you oh yes the dog ate my desert was hilarios lol!! Love Carrie nb uccello

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Hi Tom and Jan,
Lovely to hear from you both. Our blog is about two weeks behind real time--so Yes I have gotten over it! We were just so surprised at the tenor of our journey--but that's life--full of surprised. How awful that you were served iced tea as we call it stateside for breakfast. It is a staple of the American South. We Yankees (Northerners) drink our tea hot and strong!
Jaq and Les

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

You know Carrie, we strongly suspect the rafts of continuous moorers we passed were CaRT refugees from the London area who've moved onto the Lee Nav. We suspect the attitude of the locals on the Stort is a reflection of all this. At any rate we love the Wey and thank you for the recommendation. I'll pass it along to Les.
Love to you and Derek,

Wozie nb Oakfield said...

That is the advantage of living on a narrow boat, you can always move on to a better place. We like continuously cruising as every day is completely different and we meet so many lovely people to chat to en-route.

Elly and Mick said...

Hi Jacq,
I'm way behind on my blog reading and just saw this post. Oh, goodness, it reminds of a couple of dreadful days. it certainly isnt easy Learning the ways of another country. I'll never forget the day I went to Tesco to stock our pantry before heading out on our maiden voyage. I was in there for three hours and only had half the things on my list. I was so close to tears. I knew none of the brands, the stock was displayed in different groupings to what they do in Oz, there were some things in pounds, some in pints, some in litres. It was impossible to compare. I had to ask for help locating things every five minutes and I'd walked up and down the aisles about 20 times. I used the wrong words to describe things and after three hours I could take no more. I made Mick come back with me the following day to complete the task.
I really feel for you because at least we know we will be going home..... Probably about the time we get better at all this. Just remember why you came and read back on your early blogs about dreaming of living on a narrowboat. Not many folk get to realise a dream like this and you got an extra prize as well!
nb Parisien Star

Mrs. Jaqueline Biggs said...

Thanks for commenting Elly. I still cannot wrap my mind around grams, litres, etc. I guess I didn't expect Britain to be too different from the U.S. because after all we are cousins in a sense. Most of the time I enjoy the differences, but there are days when I feel overwhelmed and miss the known. I hope our paths cross sooner rather then later. we would love to have you and Mick aboard for dinner sometime. Enjoying your blog--and we've added it to our blog roll list.

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs

NB Valerie & Steam Train by Les Biggs