Monday, July 31, 2023

A different rabbit warren to explore

Since last week, I've been involved in yet another research project, this time on a different subject altogether, but before I get into that, I'll give a couple of updates on the boat/faring front.

As most of my European friends and family are aware, summer is unofficially over; unofficially because we're all meant to be taking our holidays now and enjoying basking in wall-to-wall sunshine, ambling through the countryside on long walks, eating al fresco meals and, in my case, faring gently along canals dappled with warm sunlight between the overhanging trees. Instead, most of us have pulled out our winter woollies, found our wellies and are putting on our macs every time we step outside.

The consequence is that preparations for our departure have stalled and we'll definitely be waiting for some light at the end of the rain tunnel before we cast off. S'la vie, as we've learnt to say.

Anyway, apart from making a replacement panel for my Vereeniging's exterior (the old one was suffering from rot) and almost finishing a new hatch for the Hennie H, outside work is far too wet to contemplate. Instead, I've been busy burrowing down a new rabbit hole. I haven't finished the project I was writing about last time by any means, but I'd committed to write a piece for an anthology I've contributed to for the last few years. As time was marching on I thought I'd better get on with it, so I've made a start and, as with my other project, digging into the past has got me thoroughly distracted. 

In this case, it's my own past. What some of you may not know is that I grew up in London. Like my brothers and sister, I was born in a clinic in Avenue Road near Regents Park. My parents were living in a flat in Charlbert Court off Allitson Road, so it was the nearest hospital to their home. 

Charlbert Court

We were all born there, but being a family of six in a small flat became untenable so after I was born, my parents took the last ten years of a lease on a house off the famous Abbey Road of Beatles fame. At the time, it was a remarkably cheap option; in the post-war fifties, even St John's Wood was a place with council flats and ordinary folk. In our road, this meant that we lesser mortals rubbed shoulders with the other half, including actors, bankers and aristocracy. 

But in 1967, the lease expired and the rents for leasehold properties were set to quadruple or more. Buying or even renting in the district my parents had lived in for twenty-seven years was impossible*. We not only moved; we moved out of London completely. 

Springfield Road

For the anthology contribution, I decided to write about my memories of living in our house from the time I was three, which is when I first remember anything at all, until I was eleven in 1966. It was a unique period for a number of reasons and so I started doing some fact checking, a process that led me to a fascinating website about St John's Wood. 

The menu for the site allows you to focus on specific streets, so when I looked up ours, I was pleased to find a brief biography of the actress, Adrienne Corri, who lived down the road from us. We didn't know her, but we and everyone else in the road knew her Bassett hound, George, because he was always escaping, a fact that wasn't in her bio. 

However, I was hoping to find something about Dick Bentley, a radio presenter, who also lived there and with whom my sister and I sometimes chatted when we took our family dog for a walk. He was such a nice man. His biography was missing, which was a disappointment, but because the site invited former residents to share their memories by email, I sent off a message asking if his story could possibly be added.

The house where actress, Adrienne Corri lived is the
first white one on the right

Well, imagine my surprise when not just one, but two emails came back almost instantly asking me to write about the years we'd lived there and whether I would like to contribute something about Dick Bentley as well. I then got into email exchange with one of the writers, a woman who lived in the road that backed onto ours. She told me she'd written about her own childhood, so naturally I had to look it up.

It was such a delight to read her story. So many of her memories and experiences corresponded with and matched ours. She shared information about the local shops we all went to and the businesses that came calling; she wrote about the routines of their household, many of which were similar to ours and how children simply played in the street or in each other's front gardens. 

Nevertheless, those were the days when parents were a good deal stricter about table manners and behaviour than they are now and I laughed when she recounted how she'd had to sit for hours on her own with a plate of cold rice pudding because she refused to eat it. I had to do the same with a plate of macaroni and green beans until a lodger staying with us rescued me with a bottle of Heinz salad cream. Later, I found I preferred mayonnaise to salad cream and to this day I put it on almost all my food.

Of course, many of my memories will be inaccurate and possibly rose-tinted, but I've been chatting to my sister and in principle we agree on most things. Sadly, I cannot include all our recollections in the piece I've written as there's a word limit, but I am now so inspired I'm thinking of developing it into a full length memoir, which will need even more digging. Isn't research a wonderful thing? 

Well, that's it for this time allemaal. I don't have any personal photos to share of my old stamping ground, but those I've added are screenshots from Google maps to give some context to the post. Meanwhile, there are always boats. 

*These days, a house in Springfield Road would cost in the region of six million pounds. Yes, totally unreal, isn't it? 

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

Running down the rabbit hole of research

It's no wonder I can't get anything written these days. I started off in January with a whole heap of good intentions. Having published a book every year since 2014, I was convinced I'd have a new novel or travel memoir (or even both) out by June, but it wasn't to be.

The first thing that came along to disrupt my writing life was the delightful arrival of Zoe, the spaniel. All those hours spent walking when I could be writing, but would I exchange her for my pen? Not a bit of it. However, then came the broken wrist I've mentioned before, a more dramatic limitation than my little pooch. I have to say this really set me back a lot and it was more than two months before I could type again. Once I got going, though, another hindrance cropped up: research.

When writing about travel within Europe it's impossible to ignore history, wherever you are. I'm currently working with two books, both of which involve lots of fact checking and research, but the rabbit hole I burrowed my way into yesterday turned out to be more than usually absorbing and unusual.

I'm writing about the waterways. Well, there's nothing unusual about that, I hear you say, and you'd be right, but in this case it's led me to a whole new appreciation of that small, power-hungry, Italian Frenchman, Napoleon. Without him, the canal through-routes from Belgium into France might never have been completed. It was he who pushed for the Canal de Saint Quentin to be finished, a project that connected Paris by water to the coalfields of Belgium. It was originally conceived in the 1730s but abandoned due to other political priorities. Napoleon resurrected the scheme in 1801 and, with his drive and support, it was opened in 1810. 

The Hennie H on the Canal de Saint Quentin in 2017

Waiting our turn to enter the Riqueval tunnel in 2017

Another bit of burrowing was needed to clarify the history of the Riqueval tunnel on the Canal de Saint Quentin. The tunnel is certainly the longest currently in use in Europe and at 5.67  kilometres long (about 3.5 miles), it is quite a daunting prospect for boaters as it isn't possible to navigate it under your own steam. In fact, it never has been, but since 1910, barges and boats have been hauled through the tunnel by an electric tugboat running on a chain. This video shows  a tug pulling barges into the tunnel entrance.

It takes 2.5 hours to be pulled through, normally in convoy with numerous other boats and barges. Engines have to be switched off to avoid an accumulation of fumes in the tunnel, a precaution born out of past tragedies when, during the steam tug era of the 1860s, barge crews in one convoy died from smoke inhalation, despite the ventilation holes in the tunnel. This information was only available on the Dutch Wikipedia site and not on the English or French sites, so it took me extra time to find it in that part of the rabbit warren that is the internet.

The Hennie H in the tunnel

But digging into Canal de Saint Quentin (sorry) led me to other fascinating discoveries. This canal was just part of Napoleon's vision for expanding the watery networks. He also initiated and saw the realisation of the connection between the Scheldt (Schelde in Dutch, Escaut in French) and the Scarpe, the river that runs from Arras through Douai and beyond. The connecting canal was the Canal de la Sensée, originally Censée, between Corbehem on the Scarpe near Douai and Le Bassin Rond at the junction with the Scheldt.

Boats and liveaboard barges on the Bassin Rond 
I took this photo during a visit to the area in 2013

Finding out about the development of Le Bassin Rond and where its name originated had me diving down yet another burrow and brushing up my French to read sections of a book on the history of the Sensée canal. I was curious because there was nothing round about the Bassin Rond as we knew it, but the book explained that before the canal was widened to its current proportions, there'd been a circular basin at the junction with the Scheldt with three locks leading from it, allowing barges to turn easily from one lock into the others. The place still retains the name, despite the fact all that remains of the original Bassin Rond is the old arm of the canal that forms a wonderful lake where pleasure craft and liveaboard boats can lie. I haven't yet found out when the basin and locks were filled in, but I'm still reading. 

The current Bassin Rond 'lake', the former Canal de la Sensée
The houses alongside the old arm are gradually sinking into
the marshy land, giving them a quaint, wonky appearance

All my research has resulted in more reading than I ever intended, accompanied by frequent exclamations at what I've learned, but it hasn't prompted an equivalent amount of writing. I can so easily get lost in the fascination of the history that I sometimes think I'm more of a researcher than a writer. Will I get a book out this year? I'm not sure about that, but I'm enjoying the information-gathering process.

However, I haven't only been running down rabbit holes. My DIY projects are still in progress and I'm happy to report I've made new curtains for the Hennie H. I'm also busy making a new entrance hatch to replace the old one which has suffered irreparably from the assaults of the winter weather and I'm still chipping away at that old wall at the Crumbly Cottage. It's all designed to keep me balanced and busy, isn't it?

That's all for now, allemaal. I hope you're having a good July, whether it's a warm or a cold one. Till next time.

Tuesday, July 11, 2023

Due to Circumstances

It's been one of those months, or rather spells, when everything I've planned has been put on hold 'due to circumstances', as they say here in the Netherlands.

The first of these was one I mentioned in my last post: Zoe's illness. The poor little mite has had a rough ride, which didn't just end with her operation and obligation to wear the dreaded Cone of Shame to stop her scratching her operation wound (see last post).

First, the dreaded cone of shame

Shortly after I wrote my last blog, she developed a reaction to the antibiotics she'd been taking and proceeded to expel everything she'd eaten from both ends. Not so nice for her or me, given the numerous excursions to the outside world during the night, as well as the times she didn't make it.

An anti-nausea injection from the vet last Thursday failed to help, and in fact it simply got worse, so yesterday, I took her back again. The vet was mystified as to why she was still being sick and having the runs, and he couldn't imagine what the cause might be other than an allergic response. He gave her another injection and suggested a diet of plain pasta in small portions at frequent intervals. I should say Zoe, who loves her food, was not impressed by such restrictions at all but it seems to have done the trick in settling her upset tummy.

Hopefully, she's on the mend at last and will soon be back to normal. I've missed my little bundle of nonsense. The poor little thing has been ill for over three weeks now, but her new 'airline pillow' is a relief after the cone. She can at least scratch her ears again, which probably reduces her stress levels somewhat.

This situation, in turn, has held up other plans to work more on painting the Hennie H. However, Zoe's illness wasn't the only reason for the delay. In all honesty, it's just been too hot for painting. Half the problem with maintaining a boat is having the right weather conditions to work in. If it's too cold, the paint doesn't dry or set properly; if it's too hot, the same applies; and if it's neither of these, then it's raining. Ideal conditions for painting barges come few and far between, but we are beginning and we will get there eventually.

Meanwhile, I've been killing time by preparing to re-plaster the wall of my terrace at the Crumbly Cottage. As with every project I begin, I find it's taking me far longer than expected because there's so much more that needs to come off before I can hope to apply any cement rendering to the wall. The preparation takes patience, something I have in short supply but need to stock up on; this is a job that will not be hurried. Right now, the wall is an interesting mix of textures and hues worthy of an abstract painting, and will probably become even more so as I scrape and chip the old paint and plaster off it.

That said, the weather forecast is promising for my DIY duties over the next few days, so I'll gather up my precious pup, settle her on a cushion on deck and see what can be done to repair the paintwork on our Shoe. We're hoping to leave for our holiday in a week or so, but we can always work on the way as well.

Where are we going? I'll give you a hint. If you've heard of the film Bienvenue Chez les Ch'tis, we are aiming for the town where the film takes place. More on that next time, but for now, enjoy the rest of your week allemaal!

Here are a few prettier pics to brighten up the post:

Tuesday, July 04, 2023

Who needs TV when we can have this?

In the last two weeks, we've had a few adjustments to make owing to Zoe's illness and its aftermath. Given that she now has to wear the dreaded cone to prevent her scratching the wound from her throat drain, I've had to devote more time to her and less to the jobs on my ever increasing to-do list. 

So, it was an extra pleasure to spend time onboard the Vereeniging the last few days and to wake up in the harbour to the rumble of great sea ships going past.

Happy in her new home

For me, this is one of the greatest advantages of our new mooring. Being on the sea canal from Terneuzen to Gent (Ghent) means we are constantly entertained by the passing traffic. Looking out of the Vereeniging's window and seeing huge cargo and container ships gliding past is a never-ending delight, especially late at night when the almost festive array of onboard lights signal their passing. I also love it when they're being guided by the huge, muscular tugboats that are for hire at Terneuzen.

Huge cargo carriers

Two muscular tugs at the bow

Another tug at the stern

But one of our favourite sights is the DFDS ships. These massive container carriers ply a regular route between Gent and Scandinavia in their distinctive, boxy, blue and white ships. They seem to fill the canal with their curiously space-age appearance and we can hear them coming for miles. The deep grumble of their engines is instantly recognisable and has us popping up from below like moles from our hole. To see one is to stop and stare at their ugly magnificence.

DFDS ply a regular route and can be seen daily on the canal

These photos weren't taken from the Vereeniging; we often walk along the canal and watch the ships,  so they give an idea of the kind of traffic we see at any hour during the day. It's better than TV and the kind of eye candy I can feast on all the time. 

Having my Vereeniging in Sas is probably the best kind of weekend/holiday cottage we could wish for. We don't have far to go; we have space around us for walks and relaxation; and we have a continuous procession of awe-inspiring ships to gaze at. Life can't be all that bad, can it?

Here's Zoe looking sorry for herself in her cone. Actually, she's quite used to it now and objected strongly to the softer comfy cone I bought her. She seems to prefer whacking her way through life in the the hard plastic one the vet gave me. There's no accounting...

Enjoy the rest of your week allemaal. It's been a fine but windy one here so far but we're battening down the hatches for a stormy few days to come.