Jellyfish, ladies and gentlemen, are NOT a thing which one wishes to see by the rudder of an English narrowboat. The narrowboat is a flat-bottomed, non-seaworthy thing and does not like to taste salt-water, which implies that it may be asked to face tides and vast expanses of water. But jellyfish there were in Portishead marina, and also a number of vast white boats, gin palaces whose marble facades made Tinker and I shiver with inverted snobbery. Next to us, our friend Electra sat, looking equally proletarian next to the yachts.
You don’t need to know exactly how or why I decided to head back north, after a few months in the SW. It involves sadness and sex and you probably need to be drunk to get the best out of it, as I do to tell it. Suffice it to say that in a moment of very great turmoil, a phone call came through. Why, I thought wearily, is Roger Fuller calling me from his famous little boatyard in Staffordshire?
“Do you still want that mooring in Stone?”
“Er…. Well, I did a year ago, Roger. I’m in Wiltshire now on the Kennet & Avon.”
“Right. Well, do you want the mooring?”
“Yes, Roger. Yes I do.”
“Right-oh. See you then, Jo.”
“It won’t be for a few months, mind you.”
So that was that. A mooring comes up in one of the loveliest and liveliest spots on the canal system; a sort of service station on the narrow canals, a hub that bank people don’t know about, but which canal folk know as a boat-friendly town. The Co-op will deliver to your boat here, and there is one of the oldest dry docks on the system. Just uphill is a little yard where famous working boats, the grubby queens of the waterway, are healed and relaunched. Here Roger collects signal boxes and old railway cars and unusual, ragged machinery, and brings it all back to wholeness with a mixture of love and welding.
Did I want the mooring? Reader, I would have married him. Instead I sent him a cheque for £400 and started looking at maps.
Now, there are two ways from Honeystreet in Wiltshire to Stone in Staffordshire. The first is to come back north the way that I headed south – via the K&A, the Thames, the Oxford Canal, the Coventry Canal and so forth. It meant retracing my steps. The other, of course, is to go to sea on the second-highest tidal range in the world, risking my home and everything in it.
Well, it’s a no-brainer isn’t it?
So, we will go up the Severn estuary – me and my dauntless friend Suzanne, with her boat Electra, who is up for the adventure with much less reason to do it and with only six months’ boating experience behind her, and whose company in recent weeks has been such a joy. We will spend a night under the stars in Bristol, moored outside the Arnolfini Centre amongst party-goers and sailors – then travel under Brunel’s great suspension bridge and dauntlessly bob across the mouth of the Avon to Portishead. And there we will wait for a tide, to push us like a croupier’s rake up the Severn estuary into Sharpness, the port for Gloucester and the inland waterways.
Well, this is all very heroic. It’s about going forward, and exploring new water, and I am Woman Hear Me Roar. Marvellous. Suzanne and her crew member Dru are award-winningly remarkable women, and Electra is a sturdy little soul with an engine much smaller than Tinker’s, but just as brave. Sing HO for the jolly boatpersons.
So, here we are in Portishead harbour. The jellyfish are awfully quiet. We are waiting for a tide. A TIDE, for God’s sake. It is five o’clock in the morning. Suzanne and Dru, always awake at sparrowfart, are merrily eating toast and discussing marmalade manufacture. My crew – one hairy poet, one hairy-arsed sailor – are putting lifejackets on, LIFEJACKETS for God’s sake, and the day is turning pink, and Tinker and Electra are slowly pirouetting like trained elephants, making their way into the huge river lock which separates us from the epic currents of the Bristol Channel. The river pilot hops aboard and takes the helm, tests the VHF channel which will keep Tinker and Electra in touch.
The gates open, like the gates that released the Christians to the lion pit. I exaggerate: not much. We’re a bit nervous, us. We nudge out into the bright sunrise, the five-mile wide estuary in front of us. We know that when we reach the end of the tide wall, we’re out and IN IT…. And then, we’re in it. We feel the Severn take hold of them – Tinker first, Electra hot on her heels, and both rocking back and forth a little, as they never do on the canals.
I look at the skipper. “Get the kettle on,” he says.
So I do. And that’s the hard part over with. The rest is a rollicking, glorious sunlit ride, with the water cresting gently at the bow, the Severn throwing shapes, the great Severn bridges bright against the sky with their suspension wires looking like enormous egg-slicers. Nobody falls in. Nobody gets wet. My geraniums remain undisturbed on the roof. I had expected sea-monsters and krakens; instead, it’s mostly tea and biscuits.
Tinker loves it – grabbing hold of the deep water and giving the engine a good stretch at last. Every now and then we check in with Electra – following in our wake, picking her way elegantly through the whirlpools and currents that we can see but cannot read, and which the river pilot takes us through in a series of inexplicable zig-zags and turns. One great silver shape leaps out of the water and curves back in, giving itself to the millions of tons of Severn silt. A salmon, says the pilot. Bollocks, I think. I know a mermaid when I see one.
Three hours later, we scoot neatly around the sea-wall at Sharpness and into a lock the size of a canal basin. A swing bridge opens for us, sticking slightly in the heat. It is nine o’clock in the morning, and we slide onto the glassy waters of the Gloucester and Sharpness canal, feeling like Odysseus. Oddly, no-one is lining the canal banks. There is not a brass band to be seen, nor a crowd of small children with flags and bunting. In fact, it’s not much of a journey in the grand scheme of things, dear reader. But we make our own adventures; for this one, and the company I was lucky to have during it, I was properly grateful.
This has been a long blog entry and I’ll tell you the next instalment soon enough; this is simply to say thank you to all those friends who followed our progress and wished us well – not just for the physical journey but the emotional one that made it necessary – and to Alan and Tony who crewed for me, and to Suzanne and Dru for allowing my adventure to be part of theirs, or vice versa.
Tune in soon to see if we survived the next bit.