I have my own personal rites of passage that I use to mark each decade that I pass through. It started on my 20th birthday when I celebrated by getting an ear pierced (it was the 80s and de rigueur back then ... and just a little bit daring as I was a young policeman and expected to act in a very disciplined and staid way). At 30 I did a bungee jump from a 90 foot crane. It was the scariest thing I've ever done. Exhilarating admittedly, but pants-soilingly terrifying too. Never again.
Then, at 40, I got myself tattooed. Nowhere embarrassing or gynaecological - just a Cornish flag on my upper arm. That was also a reasonably scary experience as the tattooist looked like the offspring of Ozzie Osborne and Bill Oddie and his hands shook as if he were at the epicentre of a curiously localised earthquake. That said, as soon as needle touched skin, his hands were as solid and steady as the Rock of Gibraltar. Meanwhile, and quite without me knowing, Dawn had arranged a 40th birthday treat for me. She'd booked a long weekend on a narrow boat for us, her brother Rob and partner Debbie, and her Cousin Tina and husband Colin.
We had to collect the boat from a yard in Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire and the original idea was to take the boat south towards London. However, our inexperience soon showed. We were told that canal travel is a lot slower than maybe we'd realised and that London was too far for a return journey in the time we had. We were therefore advised to go 'up-river' to Leighton Buzzard and back, which seemed a pitifully short journey on the map. But, as it turned out, even this little jaunt was only just barely achievable.
Our boat was called Rumpleteazer and named, as all of the boats for hire were, after characters from T S Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (but probably much better known these days from the musical Cats). In one of those curious coincidences that frequently pop up in life to slap our faces, the song that was playing on the radio as we left was In the Summertime by Mungo Jerry; a perfectly appropriate song for the general climate (mid-August) but also because the band was named after one of Eliot's practical cats. Nobody seemed terribly impressed that I'd spotted that. Philistines.*
We sailed (Drove? What is the correct term for a boat with no sails?) out into the flat countryside of Hertfordshire and almost immediately felt the stresses of our everyday lives evaporating like sweat off a horse's back. There is something soporific about the steady chug chug chug of the engine and the gentle lapping of the water against the sides. Our maximum speed was about 4 miles per hour but what was there to hurry for? We were serenaded by bird song, we had picnic food, wine and good beer and the sun shone brightly overhead. It was pretty close to perfect and I could see why some people choose to live this way permanently.
Of course, whatever mode of living you choose always comes with as many disadvantages as advantages and we soon began to understand that life on the rivers and canals isn't all idyllic postcard scenes and relaxation. For a start, these narrow boats are not terribly wide (the clue is in the name) ... but I was. I was four stones (56lbs) heavier than I am now and was considerably bulkier. The beds (or berths) were narrow and hard and horribly uncomfortable. The kitchen was similarly tiny. These boats are probably fine for a single person or a couple to inhabit, but six adults was definitely four too many.
We quickly grew to hate the toilet. It stood on a raised dais (presumably so that the ghastly chemicals that ... well you know what they do ... could be housed in safety below. That meant that unless you were over 6 feet tall, your feet dangled over the sides like a child on a adult's chair. The tiny cubicle was the side of a small single wardrobe; my kneecaps and shoulders all touched the walls they were nearest to. It was so claustrophobic that it felt like trying to do your business inside a coffin, after the lid's gone on. To make matters even worse, the door was a kind of concertina-folding vinyl screen with all the soundproofing of tissue paper, which caused no end of embarrassment and discomfort, especially for the ladies. It was awful. Everyone hated using the thing ... so we stopped. We made a point of stopping at any and every mooring point along the route and using the facilities offered by pubs, cafes and supermarkets. These, sadly, were not quite as frequent as we'd have liked and we soon became well-acquainted with the obscure medical conditions known as Stinging Nettle Arse and Poison Ivy Willy.
We also passed through more than a few locks. Because the route we were travelling went uphill (and water doesn't), the locks were necessary step ups (or downs). I'm sure you know how they work: You drive into the lock itself, shut the gates behind you (or in front), open the sluices - usually by way of a heavy old cranking mechanism - and then wait for the lock to either fill or empty (depending which direction you're travelling) before opening the opposite gate and heading on your way. They are a novelty at first. But after five or six, your back begins to ache and the word 'sodding' gets added before the word 'lock' in every sentence.
But the sun was shining (Rob and Colin got quite sunburnt), the boat people we met were charming and, come the evening of Day 1, we were fully into the swing of canal life and looking forward to a slap-up evening meal. We'd got as far as Tring and we moored up next to a pub called The White Lion. Apart from its excellent toilet facilities (Hoorah!), what sold us on the place was its eclectic menu. As it was my birthday meal, I decided to push the boat out (ho!) and enjoy some gourmet food.
I treated myself to ostrich steaks with samphire and duchess potatoes, followed by a curious variant of the classic creme brulee infused with orange and topped with what tasted like crispy marmalade toffee. It was wonderful. After more than a few beers to wash it all down, we moved back to the boat to enjoy the wonderfully clear skies above.
Then Rob expressed the desire to indulge in a little night fishing, so we drove away from the pub and found ourselves a night-time berth in the wilds of nowhere where we fished by lamplight and caught some big old carp. As we didn't fancy gutting, cleaning and cooking what is, at best, a muddy-tasting fish in such a small kitchen, we let them all go free. Thus, full of food and drink and with tales of the 'one that got away' to take home with us, we all utterly failed to get any kind of decent sleep.
We awoke to the sound of rain. And not just the gentle pitter-patter of a sunny Summer shower. This was real, heavy, dent your head rain accompanied every so often by the ominous growling of thunder in the distance.
Dawn elected to drive while Deb and I cooked up a traditional English artery-clogger breakfast. We had planned to moor up and eat al fresco but the driving rain forced us to stay below deck. Some rain got inside my camera and most of the photos I took on Day 2 have an odd soft-focus look to them. These were, in fact, the very last photos I ever took using a film camera. My old Olympus OM20 SLR had served me well for nearly 15 years but was now heavy, clunky and obsolete. I bought my first digital camera when we got back home, using some vouchers I got for my birthday.
The weather cleared by the time we reached Leighton Buzzard and we parked up in a kind of mini marina there. There was a supermarket nearby so the ladies went off to buy fresh supplies. Meanwhile, Rob got his tackle out (Oo-er) for a further spot of fishing. He was amazed by how quickly the fish took the bait. He caught his first fish within five minutes. Then another. Then another. He couldn't quite believe it. It was the easiest fishing he'd ever done. But then Colin spotted a sign that said something like 'No fishing - these carp are tame' and we realised that we'd actually been doing the equivalent of raiding someone's pond. We quickly stowed the equipment away and sat about trying to look nonchalant and un-fishermen like. Meanwhile, the tame carp swam stupidly around the boat looking for more free food. We threw a few pieces of bread over the side and witnessed several squabbles between the fish and the local mallards. We even started a small betting game - Who'll get the bread first? Duck or Fish? Colin won by four Ducks.
Re-stocked with food and with my camera now dried out, we started the return journey. The weather became significantly better and we were able to enjoy the bosky glades that we'd earlier only seen through a haze of rain. We were dazzled by the electric green-blue flashes of kingfishers diving from the trees into the canal and we stopped for a while to watch them. Absolutely beautiful.
We enjoyed a picnic of chicken and fresh bread and tapas-type sundries (olives, artichokes, salami etc.) all washed down with even more beer and wine (and you wonder how I ever got to be over 20 stones eh?). But the good old English Summer weather was up to its dastardly tricks again and we soon lost the Sun. At least it stayed warm and dry.
In no time at all, it was approaching evening and we parked up by the White Lion to enjoy another evening of beer, good food and toilets. One more sleepless night and we completed the final leg of the journey back to Berkhamsted. That, of course, meant passing through all of those 'sodding locks' again.
The penultimate lock was memorable in that a tiny little old lady did all the work for us. Despite our protestations and manly guilt, Rob, Colin and I were told to stay on the boat as she'd handle it. 'The exercise helps my arthritis', she shouted before putting her back into it. She shifted those lock gates all by herself while we stood helplessly by and watched. Amazing. She was 90 if she was a day and each gate weighed over a ton. I suspect she might have pushed that shed over too.
And I saw a new side of Britain too. We have a glorious landscape and you miss so much of it travelling by road. You're travelling too fast to begin with. Plus, the roads tend to bypass the most scenic areas (and quite right too). But the canals and rivers were built sympathetically, following the contours of the landscape instead of hacking chunks out of it. And because people have always clustered around the fresh water supply afforded by rivers, some of our prettiest villages are within a short walking distance of the moorings.
The only difference would be that next time I'd go with fewer people. Much as I love my relatives, six of us sharing what amounted to a stretched caravan was uncomfortable. And maybe I'd pick a part of the canal system where the toilets are not quite so far apart.
It still itches.