"Friendship is unnecessary, like philosophy, like art...it has no survival value. Rather it is one of those things that gives value to survival." C. S. Lewis, 1898-1963; British novelist, poet, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian, broadcaster, lecturer, and Christian apologist.
It is amazing how much can be packed into one week! In the bright sunshine last Thursday, I cruised off to fill up with water at Weedon and meet up with another boater who had been told to watch out for me and make my acquaintance, by Doug and James of NB Chance. I moored up near the stairs down to the tunnel near the Tesco store and just before Stowe Hill marina. I locked up NB Valerie and wandered up the towpath to find NB Stronghold. I knocked, and its owner, Ray Oakfield invited me in for a cuppa. We spent several pleasant hours chatting and getting to know one another. He was widowed sixteen years ago so he understands the landscape of my present circumstances. Ray lives on land and keeps his boat in a marina in winter and cruises the canal and river system in the spring, summer and fall. He too is a single handed boater, so we agreed to tackle the Buckby lock flight together at 6:30 a.m. the next morning.
Back on board our boat, dear friend Arthur Pritchett dropped by for tea and a natter. Arthur and Jen's boat used to be named Dabchick but they recently had it painted and changed its name to NB Bahjee which is the first two letters of their three grandchildren's names. Their boat looks so bright and lovely now in its new livery. Later in the evening the Pritchetts took me out for a lovely evening of conversation and good company over a delicious dinner and several glasses of good wine. How wonderful to sit in the company of friends.
Ray and I started off early Friday morning with a red sky foretelling rain ahead. We hoped to make it up the lock flight before it hit. As we cruised along through the woods of Brockhall Park I found myself assaulted with memory after memory of Les. I came through Bridge no. 23 and spotted the stump of a wind-felled oak tree we cut up in 2014 and I sobbed all the way to the bottom of the lock flight. I moored up for a mo to pull myself together and change into warmer clothes, and when I approached the lock Ray and Arthur were both at the gates. Arthur was kind enough to lock us up which made it quicker work for me and Ray. And he brought me a Saturday Daily Mail paper! Thanks Arthur.
We moored up on the public moorings near the water point at the top of the locks where I put on the kettle and cut some brownies for tea. The three of us sat on the bow chatting in the sunshine. Later Ray came over for dinner. I fixed Carol Palin's recipe for Seafood Pie and a tossed green salad. We had brownies and coffee for dessert and I thoroughly enjoyed the evening. Ray is the first new friend I've made since Les' death. He and Ray would have got on very well I think. They have a lot of things in common: a love of canal history and historic boats, a thirst for knowledge and an occasional good pint, and a love of laughter. I felt a bit sad that they both missed out on the chance to meet one another.
Up again early, Ray and I set off at 6:30 am in the golden dawn of a new day. We wended our way through Braunston tunnel and we both took our boats in and out of the Braunston top lock when the cable throttle snapped on NB Stronghold. Into the next lock we went, and Ray taught me how to properly breast up our boats. He worked the locks and I steered the boats. Les had breasted up on many occasions over the years when it made better sense then two boats traveling together separately if you know what I mean, but I had never done it before. What an experience and on the Braunston lock flight of all places! At lock four a man came striding up and I recognized Rob from NB Disa. He and his wife Madge are South Africans, come back to the U.K. to make a home aboard their boat. Les and I made their acquaintance on the river Stort in 2013 and our paths have crossed several times since then; the last time in 2016 at Tamworth when Les and I received the grim news of his terminal cancer and then at Cowroast lock in early winter before Les' death.
We chatted briefly and Rob took off back down the flight where he and Madge came to help lock the boats down the rest of the flight. It was lovely to see them again and touch bases with more wonderful boaters. I hope the next time we meet, we might have time to enjoy a cup of tea and some cake or a glass of wine together.
Taking two boats out of the bottom lock past all the hire boats waiting to go up, and through Butcher's Bridge was a daunting experience! I still cannot believe I did it. I think of all the times in the past when Les and I cruised into Braunston and Les would ask me to steer. I always panicked because there are boats moored up on both sides for a lot of the way through Braunston; then there is the marina half way through with boats coming and going in and out, and the junction of the Oxford canal with the Grand Union at the far end of town. Braunston is a boater's village and a hub with no less than seven marinas within spitting distance so traffic is always high; especially for those seeking water points, Elsan disposals and service points to dump rubbish. I always swore if I ever had to come through Braunston on my own I would do it in the middle of the night when nothing was moving, and there I was slowly cruising into town steering two boats side-by-side! I was surprised at how easy it was. The two boats tied together handled very nicely and it is amazing how quickly other boaters get out of your way when they see breasted up boats coming through! I hope my Baby was watching because I owe my ability to handle a boat to Les' superb training.
|NB Valerie and NB Stronghold breasted up in lock three of the Braunston flight of six locks.
|Rob and Madge from NB Disa and Ray in the middle with a windlass.
|Our breasted up boats as I take them through Butcher's Bridge to moor up on the left.
On Tuesday I said goodbye to Ray and he cruised on towards Rugby. I noticed that Heather Boyce and Kate Saffon on the Idle Women tour had come into town and were breasted up just before the marina entrance. I took them some cake and Kate came down to NB Valerie to invite me aboard NB Tench for a short hop through Braunston. I cruised on the stern with Heather who handles this 72 foot historic working boat with incredible aplomb. I was incredulous at how well the grand old dame (the boat not Heather) responded to a mere tweak of its brass gears. Smooth as silk and lovely to feel under my feet--what an experience! I knew Les would have been chuffed to bits for me. Thanks ladies for the lift!!
|The thrill of a lifetime, as I stand at the helm of NB Tench. Heather Brodie stands in the background waiting to cast off.
"Jaq--where are you?!!"
"I'm down here," I replied and Les looked down, spotted me and burst into laughter. It was such a flawlessly Morecambe & Wise (or Laurel & Hardy for Americans) moment. We laughed together until tears traced our cheeks and then laughed some more until the bus came and we staggered aboard.
After waiting 45 minutes for the bus that was thirty minutes late according to the online bus schedule, a tall young man suddenly appeared behind me and tapped me on the shoulder.
"Are you waiting for the bus to Daventry?"
"Yes I am."
"We thought so. It doesn't stop here near the pub at all anymore. It only picks up and drops off up in the village now. My mom saw you standing here and she will give you a ride up to the hill to the bus stop." Wow! Strangers are watching out for me now. As I approached the car, the young man held the door for me and said he would walk home.
"Hi, I saw you standing there and I thought you might be waiting for the bus. Are you on a boat?" A younger woman with smiling eyes and shoulder length dark hair smiled at me as she drove up the hill into the village.
"Yes I am. When did they stop picking up and dropping off down by the canal? My husband and I were here last in 2015 and we caught the bus to Daventry there."
"Oh it's been about nine months now."
"My name is Jaqueline. Thank you so much for stopping to let me know. This is very kind of you."
"I'm Amanda but folks just call me Amy. I used to have a thirty foot boat before I had children. Once the kids came along I didn't feel safe on the boat with them so small so we sold it, but I do miss those days."
"Oh Amy I just realized I left my trolley tucked in the hedge at the bus stop!"
"Oh that won't do. Let's go get it. Is your husband waiting on your boat?"
"No, he died four months ago and I am single handing it on my own now."
"I am so sorry for your loss." Amy pulled up to the bus stop, I hopped out, retrieved my trolley and as I climbed back in the car, Amy said,
"Let me drive you to Daventry, It is only ten minutes down the road. It will take no time at all."
"Oh Amy that is so kind of you. Are you sure?"
"Yep, no problem at all. Tesco's or Waitrose?" And off we went, chatting about her life, her children, and their recent camping trip over the bank holiday weekend. Soon enough she dropped me in Daventry and I waved goodbye. Thank you Amy, may you be blessed a thousand fold for your kindness.
As I stood waiting for the stop light, a text came in on my phone. It was from Marilyn MacDonald on NB Waka Huia. She was headed for Braunston Marina. Ray on NB Stronghold had passed her and shouted out that I was moored up just before bridge 91 in Braunston. The canal communication line was in full swing! I told Marilyn that I was headed for the shops in Daventry. She texted that she and David would be waiting for me, and the wine was chilling! I hadn't seen either of them since Autumn a year ago when they came to visit Les and I at Cowroast. It felt like decades had passed since I saw them last and I couldn't wait to hug them both. I finished my shop and waited another hour for the number 12 bus back to Braunston from Daventry. It was late, it didn't come, other passengers were complaining that the buses were out of sync with the time table and I finally gave up and took a Taxi back to the boat.
On board Waka Huia strong hugs passed between David, Marilyn and me. We had a wonderful conversation about current events, caught up, and Marilyn fixed a delicious dinner of cheese and onion tart, tossed salad, and new potatoes. Wine glasses were refilled several times and we remembered Les with love, laughter and a few tears.
|Marilyn and David canoodling at the dinette!
|Me and Marilyn. Her boat hair looks vastly better than mine!
Les brought me here for a week of recovery in September 2011. We had come home to begin our married life on the boat and we were totally knackered after three months in the States in which me were married, sorted out my worldly goods, packed them up, and shipped them off to England, prepared Cloudhouse for its new owners, applied for a spouse visa, terminated my career with Washington State University, survived heat in the triple digits, and addressed a dozen-dozen other details. This beauty spot is one of our very favorites on any canal. It is quiet, with no road and traffic noise, no planes overhead and no trains nearby--just bird song, the rustle of the wind in the grass, and the sound of passing boats. The view here is stunning and we slowly unwound into the next phase of our life together.
|Les giving me his best "Hey baby" look as we cruised along.
On Thursday morning after washing and hanging two loads of laundry in the morning sunshine, enjoying a coffee on the towpath while Marilyn scrubbed Waka Huia's cratch cover, I put on an apron and commenced to fix some food for our lunch party coming up. Suddenly I heard a boat horn and turned to see NB Derwent 6 slowly cruising past! Del slowed it to a stop next to our boat and hugs were had all around as I reveled in seeing Del and Al back on the cut after an extended time away to care for ailing parents who succumbed to illness. Both well understood the loss of of someone deeply loved; they knew Les well and loved him too. We had a quick catch up as they were following a friend on their way up to Birmingham. We hope to meet as they come down the Trent & Mersey and I head up later in the summer. What a splendid surprise!!!
|Lovely Del and Al on Derwent 6.
|Laughing John and Julia enjoying a bit of cake bliss. Mick taking a moment to tell me how he really feels about having his picture taken!
|Our favorite view across the hilly fields. As one's gaze sweeps across to the right...
|...the hills drop away.
|Birdsong fills the sweet, clean air and the grass rustles in the breeze.
|Not another boat moored up in sight! Soon enough it will change and we will all be settled in like long beads strung on a necklace of towpath.
Marilyn however is a zebra of different stripes! She too is a short arsed woman with strong convictions, a sharp mind, and a sarcastic set to her humor. Whereas I try to disappear in public unless I know people well or I am assured folks are safe to be around, Marilyn demands attention! She thrives on it and can make conversation about anything with anyone. Perpetually happy to be alive and cruising, she has a friendly remark for every passing boater and walker and they reply in kind. So I decided to take a lesson from my dear friend and try to be more friendly and conversant with those who cross my path. So far, so good. No one's threatened me yet!! After tackling a bit of the outside, I commenced a serious interior boat clean including the windows--so of course it rained! I caught up on some reading and telly watching.
Here it is Friday the third of June. Spaghetti sauce is simmering on the stove and I am readying to up sticks and cruise to Napton to hook up with our dear friends Andy and Tina Elford on NB Ytene. We have a long overdue hug-fest planned and dinner aboard NB Val with drinks, conversation, laughter and tears. Les, Andy and Tina cruised together for three years and they were--and are our best mates. Recently their lovely dog Leah died from cancer and old age and our hearts are terribly sore from all of our recent losses.
|Tina, Leah, and Andy.