Barging up the River Thames DAY ONE: BARKING TO GRAVESEND

Well that was quite the cliff hanger, wasn’t it?! 

I would say I’m sorry, but I’ve been enjoying every moment with the Bun and it’s been heavenly, so… 
Casting my mind back with a wrench to those halcyon days of summer, and the 1st July which was if you remember, the hottest day of the year. 

  
Because Life is a little tinker who never misses an opportunity to make a point, not only did she introduce us to one of our favourite new families of 2015 two months before we left Barking; but they turned up to wave us off bringing The World’s Best pastel de nata from a glorious little Portuguese cafe around the corner that we never knew existed. Still, the cakes were nice.

  

After an ever-so-slightly anxious moment leaving Fresh Wharf where we cast off before the tide was high enough to open the barrier and had to hover midstream against a minor current until the gates parted (don’t know if you’ve ever tried to do that but it’s almost impossible), we were off. 

   

  
    
 
  
 
   

  

  

  

            
I couldn’t quite believe it, to be honest.

 There was an amazing moment of stillness as we meandered down Barking Creek through slack water towards the Thames, basking in the sun as we left the industrial estates, scrap yards and sewage works behind us and all those niggling little weights that had accumulated over the past two years slipped gently one by one from my shoulders and plopped into the water.  It was a glorious feeling to be under way – in our very own boat, heading for an incredible mooring, on such a beautiful day, with two fantastic days of boating on the finest river in the world ahead of us. I’m sorry if that reads as smug – it’s not intended. We couldn’t believe our luck. 

On board were: 

– Us and the Bun

– My mum (who’s been with us all the way since that first trip to Holland and wasn’t going to miss this for anything)

– Our skipper Edward and his wife Pamela, and their friend and engineer Carlo

– Our good friends and longtime partners-in-mischief Tom and Sophie joined us for day 2

         
 

We turned left at the Thames and headed out into the estuary and the commercial reach of the river. My god but it’s wide. Obviously – but you don’t often get to see it from the middle like that… And bumpy! 
The Bun wasn’t phased however – she proved her mettle as a true-born boat baby and slept solidly all the way down to Gravesend. 

         

 

After two peaceful, uneventful and wholly satisfying hours, it felt as if Gravesend came upon us rather quickly.  But there we were, and as we all cooed and marvelled at the swans (“Swans! Loads of them! In the sea!”), our skipper expertly manoeuvred us into the place he’d reserved on the pontoon at the end of the pier as the last of the tide ebbed away, and we gathered ourselves to go to the pub. 

 
  
 

Except it wasn’t the right pier. 
It looked a bit grubby and neglected  I grant you, but we only really started to smell a rat when there appeared to be no way off the pier except by pre-approved vandalism (is vandalism still vandalism if you’re given permission?)

 
  

Sure enough, it soon transpired that the PLA pier was the next one upstream, and we were going to have to try and get ourselves off our now distinctly shallow berth and onto the right one. Which in its favour had a very nice-looking pub easily accessible just at the top of it. 
In our excitement we had failed to realise the following useful fact:  to contact the PLA whilst navigating the Thames, use call sign LONDON VTS and vhf channel 14 (West of Crayfordness) OR vhf channel 68 (East of Crayfordness). All that time we’d been patting ourselves on the back on the wrong pier, they had been trying to reach us on VHF68 to no avail… Awkward.
To cut a long story short, it culminated not only in a snapped jackstaff and the PLA having to rescue us with a very powerful tug, but further in a sternly worded letter of reprimand which we received just last week (I take some small consolation in the knowledge that the PLA are evidently as inefficient at admin as I am). The nice harbourmaster did give us a useful map though which is now stuck to the bathroom wall for us to memorise while we’re brushing our teeth:

 

So. Live and learn. Duly chastened, we did eventually make it off the pier and into the pub, before bunking down ahead of our Big Day still to come. Hopefully I’ll get to that bit a bit faster, because it was genuinely EPIC. 

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Catastrophe

As you know, I have a six month old baby. She is the best Bun in the world – she sleeps like a dream, she eats like a horse, she beams at everyone she comes across but especially at me: she’s great. I do have the odd moment of feeling completely knackered and ever so slightly over it, but by and large my life feels pretty perfect these days – I am actually Living the Dream and I think I might be the happiest I have ever been. 

So imagine my regret when I recently started to feel the odd twinge of nausea. 

Then I felt a bit dizzy. I had a bit of a headache. Over the course of a few days and a few more symptoms, I realised I might have a Situation. Hmmm.

The first pregnancy test was negative. I weighed the fact that it was impossible to tell whether I definitely had several other symptoms as they are also symptoms of / absent during breastfeeding (sore breasts, missed period, sore back), so I waited a week while the nausea and dizziness persisted and the Owl suffered a bout of my ill-humour, and did another one. 

Still negative. Hmmm. 

I reviewed the facts and checked my calendar. It started about three weeks ago. My main symptoms are occasional waves of nausea and dizziness. 

The dates coincide with our move up the Thames to our new mooring. It’s a busy stretch of the river, and fully tidal – I’ve really enjoyed spending so much time on board watching all the activity and being rocked about by the wind and the wake of the bigger boats going by, and by our own boat as she bottoms out twice a day. 

I have a mild case of sea sickness. 

Ha! 

Bye bye, Barking

And we’re off! In approximately 2 hours, aiming to document our progress as we go on Instagram, if anyone is interested: @minkypink.
But first, a word on Barking, our home for the last 2 years, before we leave it behind forever.  (Dumper’s remorse? Maybe).

If we had the money, we’d buy a place in Barking. Somewhere nice near the river to rent out and hold onto until we decide to retire and live either off it or in it. In a few years’ time, my bet is that Barking is going to be smoking hot property – Dalston East, if you will. They’re thinking Big, and all those stupid Fresh Wharf shenanigans aside, I kind of love it.   It’s got a fantastic sense of community, and aspirations in the creative industries that I wish I could be a part of.   

A few things I appreciate, in no particular order: 

– the crazy-good history! Barking Abbey was built in the 10th century by Saint Erkenwald for his sister Saint Ethelburga (evidently a family of high achievers). It was so rich and beautiful that William the Conqueror couldn’t shoot Harold’s eye out fast enough, so keen was he to move in and made all the kings of England eat humble pie off the nuns’ flagstones.

– Captain Cook got married in St Margaret’s church.  Fact. 

 

– The new Abbey Leisure Centre’s soft play area The Idol received £100,000 Arts Council funding (of an annual £0.5million Barking/ Arts Council pot) and was designed by Turner prize nominee Marvin Gaye Chetwynd. 

Admittedly it’s all black, but conceptually it’s great. And apparently the black is to create a sense of danger, which is rare in council soft play areas, so I applaud it. 

Also it was designed by a Turner prize nominee, which is super cool and inspiring, so who cares.  

– The Granary development right opposite our boat is positioning itself at the heart of a new “artistic quarter” which if the existing building is anything to go by will be really quite beautiful. Especially once someone gets around to sorting our poor, neglected river out. (Don’t all leap up at once – rumour has it that Ilford Film used to dump all their processing waste into the river, so the silt is full of nasties. If true, no self-respecting dredging company will want to touch it with a barge pole. This is hearsay incidentally, so hopefully  it’s not true. , because this river area deserves to be bloody lovely one of these days.

  The Ice House/ Granary development, from the road 

  And from our roof (riverside) when we first arrived in 2013, before they filled in all the blue with tower blocks  

  
  
 The turning pool at Town Quay; in need of a good dredging 


– The scraggy Fresh Wharf industrial estate that overlooks us has already been contracted to developers. I haven’t seen the plans but it can’t possibly be worse than it is already. And frankly the sooner the owners hand it over and the mooring residents can try to build a cordial new neighbourly relationship not riven with petty arguments and historical resentment, the better. (See: the arrival of Concrete Singh below). 

  Our next door plot two weeks ago

   

 Our next door plot now
– Barking has an arboretum! A proper one, with loads of different trees in it. It’s lush. Also next to it the Creative Square outside the beautiful Town Hall puts on occasional light shows and concerts. In two weeks there’s a Folk Festival with Dagenham son Billy Bragg headlining. 

  
   The arboretum

  Random ‘fake ruin’ art installation by the Town Hall   

  Barking Town Hall

   Creative Barking & Dagenham


– There are a couple of great little cafes, notably: 
1) EzO Bistro within the Barking station concourse, open since summer last year and lined with second hand books and original art. They serve great fresh coffee, crepes and sandwiches. The Owl gets his second caffeine hit there every morning (they remember how he takes it) and the owners work their butts off to make it a genuinely nice place to spend time, which if you’ve seen Barking station is something of an accomplishment. 

   
     

2) Relish, the council run community cafe in the Barking Learning Centre (home to the library, the Barking Bath House and a gallery, amongst others). The food comes in abundant portions and is really very good. The Bun and I take ourselves out for lunch there at any excuse really… Which is easy as the GP is right opposite and our Children’s Centre is just over the road. 

  

– the Gascoigne Childrens Centre is deservedly OFSTED rated Outstanding. I’m really going to miss it.
– they have sex ed posters like this hanging from the lampposts: 

  (This makes me giggle like a teenager every time I pass by)


– the Queen is coming to visit next month. Apparently it’s the 50th anniversary of the borough but whatever – THE QUEEN! I love the Queen.

 

– Finally: the transport infrastructure is really good. The C2C, the Overground and two underground lines run from Barking station so you can be at Kings Cross in half an hour. Not bad for zone 4…

So things are Happening in Barking. I like it.  And in a way – family proximity and a beautiful stretch of river notwithstanding – it’s more “us” than Kew is (which has a Society specifically dedicated to making sure NOTHING EVER CHANGES).

But we have no investment in the area; even once the development is completed (assuming there are any boats left), the mooring fees will just go up in line with the improved local area and facilities…  All hope lies with a few brave boaters and their community mooring aspirations.

In the meantime, the situation at Fresh Wharf is as precarious and frustrating as ever.  The latest word is that mooring licenses won’t be renewed after October, and in our immediate area, living conditions are actually worse since PMC Soil Solutions packed up all their lorries and left.  The estate managers in their eternal social compassion and wisdom moved the friendly but very noisy and excessively hardworking Concrete Singh into the plot next door.  (highlights so far have included clouds of cement dust billowing over our decks and through our portholes, and all-day Sundays and 10pm week night finishes, bless their grubby cotton socks.)

All in all we’re over it, and we’re off. We’ve met some truly lovely people who we hope we’ll see again, and we wish the best of luck and fair winds to all the friends and acquaintances who are staying on to fight another day.  If they can stay the course and emerge triumphant, it will be so worth it – Barking Riverside is truly a diamond in the rough. 

So, with a song in our hearts and smiles on our faces, we wave goodbye and turn our backs on Barking, heading south through the barrage and down the River Roding, to sail up through London Town and into the sunset. 
It’s the summer solstice, so with any luck it’ll be a good one. 

A Topsy Turvy Week : on how we find ourselves in need of a new mooring

Sorry for the radio silence, we’ve been in Berlin for a few days as J was speaking about his album app project at the AES conference. It’s such a great city, chilled and electric at the same time – es war fantastische!

We stayed at the Michelberger Hotel.
We ate at Hansen, Markethalle Neun, Jolesche, Soho House Berlin and Gasthaus Figl; we drank at Kuschlowski.

We had coffee in the deco courtyard of the Cameleon theatre, browsed the art market on Museuminsel and meandered through the Brandenberg Gate, into the Tiergarten and down past the Holocaust memorial. We did a bit of vintage and stumbled across the East Berlin Gallery just at the end of our road.

We discussed flying dreams; my next pot; how we might get the boat to Berlin; what we want to achieve in the next few months and years; what we’d do if Armageddon actually happened. We fell asleep in the afternoon. We spent almost a whole day going up and down the Spree on a riverboat from East to West to East again, drinking cold beer in the sunshine.

And then we got home.
Got stuck at Stansted border control for over an hour at midnight. I got bitten on the side of my forehead which had swelled to the size of an egg by bedtime and looked like a half-cracked Klingon by the time I work up. We got a letter from the mooring terminating our agreement and giving us until 30th June to leave.

So, yeah.

That happened.

FOUND

I don’t mind telling you that yesterday was something of a low-point in our nautical saga so far.  That glass of chilled rosé to Bob Marley’s dulcet rhythms was ebbing into a dim and uncertain horizon.  However, after a good night’s sleep I have regained my composure sufficiently to update you on the latest. 

I tend to prefer to hear bad news first so the good news following takes some of the sting out.

So the bad news is: the boat is still in Holland.  In fact, it is still here:

 Apparently it tried to leave as planned, but within the first few miles of hard-driving through the Dutch inland waterways to try to identify any ‘kinks’ before it hit the Channel, the gearbox controls seized up and the steering went wibbly, so they had to turn back to get it all fixed.  They also decided to sort the rusty-to-the-point-of-nonsense bollards out while they were at it.  (These are all things that were identified in the survey as issues that should be looked at, so not a total shocker.)  

At no point did it occur that we might need to know any of this, hence our (o.k.: my) spectacular frustration yesterday when we learned it wasn’t anywhere near Dunkirk, let alone Kent, in fact it seemed to be going BACKWARDS. 

We don’t know how quickly the boatyard will be able to do the work, or consequently when it’ll be ready to leave said boatyard, traverse Holland and the Channel, and pitch up at the Medway for a week before finally stopping at Barking Creek.

We’ve now got to work out what to do with the cat for the foreseeable before he starts tearing M’s house down, and we’ll be paying mooring fees from the 1st May regardless. 

 

The good news is: the boat is found. Everyone is safe.  It may not look like it from where we’ve been standing, but things are going forwards and R is doing his best to get it all done as quickly as possible (albeit at the whim of the boatyard, who have other things to do than pander to my dramatics).  

We have established (I HOPE) the need for clearer lines of communication in general, and specifically should any more problems arise.

The boatyard the work is being done at is possibly the best in Holland, they’re going to be physically removing and re-welding our shitty bollards and sorting all those mechanics out (jobs we wouldn’t have had a snowball’s chance in hell of doing ourselves), and all this work is happening on our broker’s tab as part of the arrangement, which is actually completely amazing. 

We have found and secured ourselves a great London mooring which is now ready and waiting for us whenever we’re ready to arrive, and it’s extremely reassuring having spoken to them at length this morning to learn how common all this faffing about is. I suppose it goes without saying, but we don’t know many people who’ve bought boats like this before so concrete reassurance that all these nautical niggles are perfectly normal is hard to come by. 

We are stupid-lucky to have lovely, welcoming friends and family with room for us to stay – with cat – for as long as we need.

The cat is fine – a bit of cabin-fever perhaps, but safe and well, and not cowering in abject misery in the far corner under the bed. 

Also: we’re heading into the sunshine, so everything is looking a little bit sparklier than it did before. 

 

I have a new mantra: The plan is there is no plan.  

And (thanks Gio): Eyes on the prize. 

Cat On Board

On the subject of establishing our 3.5year old cat Oscar on the boat:

A bit of research on the DBA’s ‘Barge Life’ forum (especially for the purpose of discussing domestic boating issues – as opposed to all other boating issues practical and mechanical), as well as a timely article in this month’s BlueFlag (the DBA members’ magazine), has revealed that the best thing one can do for one’s boat-bound feline is to:

A) Furnish him with a “Loc8or” on his collar, which emits a loud noise/ bright light when you press the button on your monitor to locate him. Clearly only for use in moments of sincere panic as to his whereabouts. If he survives the shock it’ll help me find him, wherever he is. Or let’s face it even if he doesn’t. http://www.loc8tor.com/uk/pets/

B) Put a “cat ladder” over the side of the boat for him to climb up should he fall in. This is a rather more poetic (and cheap) solution, comprising a decent rope with knots tied every 30cm or so.

And my own addition: keep him inside for as long as possible, but when he’s ready to go out just leave him to get on with it. He’s a cat. More to the point, he’s a scaredy cat. He won’t put himself in danger if he can possibly help it. Which is where the ladder and loc8or comes in.

Sigh.