Messing about on the river: How we became a nation of water lovers

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11 листопада 2019 20:13

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There is a scene in the 1908 Kenneth Grahame children’s classic The Wind In The Willows in which Mole and Rat are rowing up the river. At one point, Rat turns to his companion and says: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” Our national love affair with all things aquatic has waxed and waned ever since but it has rarely been greater than it is today.

According to the Canal & River Trust, the charity responsible for the waterways of England and Wales, the number of volunteer lock-keepers helping out boaters particularly at big flights of locks doubled between 2014 and 2018. This represents a remarkable turnaround in the fortunes of a profession that was decimated by the post-war slump in British industrial output. Its recovery can be attributed to a boom in recreational boating as citizens of what has traditionally been one of the great seafaring nations rediscover their enthusiasm for the inland waterways.

It is a phenomenon I can strongly relate to myself. For years my five brothers and I had an annual tradition of taking to the waterways of Scotland in my Edinburgh-based brother’s 40ft sailing boat. And more recently, I have been a regular guest on a Thames slipper – a sleek wooden launch – owned by relatives of my wife. There is nothing quite like a day spent coursing through sun-dappled water, against a backdrop of some of the most beautiful scenery in the land, your passage punctuated by the calls of some of our most elegant birds, from swans to ospreys.

And there’s no need to deny yourself the odd treat either, whether in a convivial waterside hostelry or even while afloat. On a stretch of the Thames near Marlow in Buckinghamshire, for instance, a floating ice-cream “van” does a roaring trade. If you crave a 99 mid-river, simply hail him and he will pull up alongside. On the Forth and Clyde Canal at Clydebank, McMonagles fish and chip shop operates as a “sail-thru” restaurant. While landlubbers dine in the 80-seater restaurant on board the 100ft boat, waterborne customers can order their cod and chips via a hatch on the canal side. It’s billed as the world’s only floating fish and chip shop but it does, in fact, sit on the bottom of the canal, weighed down by 100 tons of cement.

The Forth and Clyde Canal was reconnected with the Union Canal at the turn of the century following a £78million investment by the National Lottery. As a result, it is now possible to putter from Edinburgh in the east to Glasgow in the west once again. There have been some teething troubles, of course. While sailors could take in the majestic architecture in the city centre of the Scottish capital en route, they also had to pass through some of Glasgow’s toughest housing estates. In the early days, the lock-keepers’ informal advice to boatmen taking this route was to pack a dustbin lid.

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Some locals who were not gainfully employed had taken to hanging out on footbridges that spanned the canal and, after a few bottles of “Buckie” – Buckfast tonic wine also known as “Wreck the hoose juice” – decided it was great fun to bombard boats with projectiles as they passed below. A dustbin lid provided some protection for the intrepid helmsman but shrewder skippers learned to pass through these areas in the morning when the stone-throwers were still sleeping off the previous day’s excesses. I had a rather different experience when my wife’s relatives took us to lunch at The Waterside Inn at Bray, Berks, the three Michelin starred establishment owned by the celebrated Michel Roux. When we moored up at the restaurant, the Waterside’s legendary former maitre d’, Diego Masciaga, appeared without prompting and wrapped the bowsprit in a snow-white linen napkin in case the swell created by a passing boat should cause it to be damaged by banging into the jetty. Three-star service, indeed.

As we relaxed overlooking the river following a magnificent lunch, we noticed that two customers who had borrowed the restaurant’s own boat appeared to have lost engine power and were heading for a weir. Our skipper duly went to the rescue with a couple of Waterside staff on board. And with a Waterside man at the helm, it returned to port under its own steam. By now the saga playing itself out on the river had gripped the entire restaurant and the rescue party was treated to a round of applause as they disembarked. Oh, and a complimentary bottle of vintage Ruinart champagne arrived at our table as if by magic.

Amateur boatmanship is a common problem on Britain’s waterways. Motorboat-hire companies are quite happy to rent out vessels – often fibreglass numbers known sneeringly as “Tupperwares” by the purists – after dispensing the bare minimum of tuition in the art of helmsmanship: a matter of just 10 minutes in some cases. As a result, lock-keepers have learned to allow the inexperienced in first so their crude navigational skills to do not annoy the experts. Once in the lock, the newbies’ incompetent rope-throwing offers the old hands much amusement. Before entering a lock, most boats will drop off one crew-member to walk up to the towpath and prepare to tie up the boat to the bollards installed for the purpose. Unfortunately, this requires someone on the boat to throw a heavy rope to a height of perhaps 15 feet – no mean feat for a greenhorn. Soon shouts ring out as throwers and receivers become increasingly exasperated with each other.

The most unfortunate boaters are the ones who allow a rope to trail astern after getting under way, with the result that it gets caught in the propeller, bringing their craft to a sickening halt. Sorting out this particular problem can involve a chilly dip with a diver’s knife to hack off the offending hemp or an expensive trip to the dry dock. Helmsmanship is another issue. One memorable incident occurred at Drumnadrochit Harbour on Loch Ness. As a particularly inexperienced sailor prepared to moor up he pushed the throttle hard forward rather than back and his boat was pile-driven into the pier at a speed of around 10 knots. No one got more of a shock than the girl in the bikini sunbathing on the foredeck. She was thrown on to the pier. Drink had been taken, of course.

While pleasure boaters are warned about the perils of being drunk in charge of their craft, some ignore this advice. A scan of the case-load of the Marine Accident Investigation Branch, the government quango charged with looking into the circumstances of marine fatalities, reveals that alcohol is all too often a contributory factor. So wait until you have moored up before pouring yourself that first glass. That way, you’ll be in fine fettle to tackle Britain’s magnificent waterways once again the next day.

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