Foreword by Hugh McKnight
Introduction — On writing the biography of a boat.
Chapter 1 —Adelina, from Thy Dark Exile
The finding, raising, and naming of Adelina; her history, from being opened as a Boys' Club by the Duke of Gloucester; moving her to Shardlow.
Chapter 2 — In Friendship's Name
Making the boat more or less inhabitable; fed-upness of colleagues with canal obsessivenesss and method of getting own back; moving Adelina to Burton upon Trent.
Chapter 3 —Hitting the Trail
Journey of Adelina to London, mainly towed by Willow Wren working boats; problems of finding residential moorings in London.
Chapter 4 — All Mod Cons
The next phase of making Adelina into a home; odd plumbing system and sanitation.
Chapter 5 —Duckett's Cut
Life on a canal in the East End of London; peculiar method of access; amiable encounters with the police, and the dog that couldn't climb ladders; decision to move home.
Chapter 6 — The Basingstoke
Brief account of the tribulations of the Basingstoke Canal, and what life on it was like; Floating Homes in a floating suburb.
Chapter 7 — Water Music
Further civilising of Adelina, with description of curious systems of pumping and electric lights.
Chapter 8 —The Canal Press
Account of setting up a miniature printing and book binding activity on board, which culminated in the production of two small books.
Chapter 9 — Memorabilia
The collecting mania and canal enthusiasm combined; filling Adelina with teapots and books; painting her in a traditional fashion.
Chapter 10 — Deep Waters
Narrative of a journey on the remarkable underground canal system (now closed) used in the coal mines established by the Duke of Bridgewater at Worsley.
Chapter 11 — Rallying Round
Recalls some personally memorable highlights of Rallies at Aylesbury, Woking, London; Dinners at House of Commons, attended whilst resident on Adelina.
Chapter 12 — Goodbye
Final account of Adelina as she was just before her owners departed for new country; toddlers on board and their life.
Description of a visit by the family in 1977, the first time Adelina had been visited by the Horsfalls in 12 years, seen through the eyes of 15 year old Amelia.
CHAPTER 4: ALL MOD CONS
Settling in on Duckett's was something of a problem: we had been provided with a mooring and access, but that was all. No electricity, no running water or sanitation on board; but at least a roof over our heads. The first major effort was devoted to getting Adelina habitable as soon as possible, for the sort of accommodation that might be tolerated — even enjoyed — on weekend boating trips is not normally acceptable on a permanent basis, except perhaps to refugees. The idea of camping is to get away from it all: but the "all", i.e. creature comfort, is very nice to be there waiting when one gets back.
During the journey from Burton, some amelioration of the living conditions had been accomplished, and sleeping on board during winter was generally agreed to be preferable to spending the night in an open field. But Adelina was to be HOME, with soft lights, music, warmth, comfortable furniture, merry crowds (but not too merry and not too large; think of the floorboards), and all the rest of the Pickwickian vision. In her then condition, Adelina was more like Fagin's Den prior to renovation.
Glazing the windows, painting the interior a rather more suitable colour than sickly, non-drying yellow and army sage green, and acquiring a bit of furniture were all executed in a surprisingly short time. Naturally the provision of sleeping facilities came first, the powerstation wood coming in handy to make hard but serviceable beds. These long anticipated the vogue for sleeping with a board beneath the mattress: they consisted only of a board beneath a mattress. The latter, an ex-army coir job, probably designed to discourage sleep whilst the user was on active service, was arguably harder than the board. Putting the mattress beneath the board might even have been a more rational approach.
My bed top was in the form of a box, the interior of which could be used as a storage space. Cribbing from Parkinson, it is possible to postulate the First of Junk Collectors: Rubbish Accumulates to Fill the Space Allotted to It (the Second Law is that Junk also Accumulates to Fill Space NOT Allotted to It). The bed quickly became the repository of all sorts of documents considered too precious to jettison, but too bulky to store properly. Letters, waterways pamphlets, and one pearl in the form of the last edition of the railway Bradshaw's Guide, all piled up in the space.
Heat from above and damp from below did their worst, and when the space was eventually unpacked, there remained but a semi-composted Bradshaw, fit only to be thrown away.
Other furniture was easy to come by: there was a small and very cheap second-hand shop nearby, and our purchases were made before today's craze for Victoriana. Because of the size and shape of Adelina, and the narrowness of internal doors, all the furniture had to be narrow as well. The first question asked of any piece therefore was "how wide is it?" A small chiffonier was unearthed, found to be of the right size, and only then price discussed. "Arf a crown any good to yer mister?" It was, and the early ninetenth century sideboard took its place as though custom built for a narrow boat. A delightful china cabinet with whippet-like legs soon appeared to keep the chiffonier company. A gargantuan Edwardian wickerwork armchair, complete with original upholstery, was regretfully rejected on the grounds of girth, though only two and sixpence.
Pocket calculators were not then available, so everything was priced in units that added up readily to ten shillings or a pound; and a pound was about the maximum for the best in the shop. Looking at the tags on similar objects, found now only in antique shops, I realise we had, or rejected, a small fortune in furniture by today's values. Inhabitability of a sort was the outcome of all this activity, and sleeping on board soon became definitely better than sleeping in a field, even with a tent thrown in.
Much more was required to make her into a truly welcoming and convenient home; but to be honest although the "welcoming" part was achieved, she never became convenient in all the years we lived on her. In fact with a sort of strange feminine logic, the greater the number of mod cons, the less convenient Adelina became. I'm sure that if the boat had been named Fred, everything would have worked smoothly from the outset.
What are the basic requirements of a residence? In our brick-built, mains-electrified, running-water, centrally-heated houses, it is difficult to realise just how much is taken for granted. Consider a simple factor that even the crofter in his cottage and the stockbroker in his mansion have in common, unless they live in an earthquake zone: the reasonable certainty that the morrow will still see them with the roof over rather than under their heads.
There is no such guarantee with a narrow boat, especially one both old and with a proven fondness for taking naps on the canal bottom. Adelina's "running water" was a persistent leak that had to be cured and, even more urgently, measures were needed to prevent flooding in the event of a bit falling off the bottom of the boat. Sudden and disastrous flooding did once happen, without any prior warning that a bit of the hull had suddenly become too old and too frail to hang on any longer.
One morning I awoke early and went to fill the paraffin can cistern. By now the smell of burning rubber was enough to alert the cognoscente to imminent cremation of the boiler, so sniffing like a Bisto kid I sat up and put my feet on the floor. They, and shortly afterwards I (communication is a bit slow at 5:00am), were shocked to find ourselves ankle deep in icy water. Such however was my state of somnolence and familiarity with Adelina's quirks, I got up, baled out thirty buckets of water, filled the paraffin can, then went back to bed without thinking anything unusual had occurred. In a house, one dripping tap is enough to induce permanent insomnia.
Came the usual hour of rising, when complete consciousness was unavoidable, the whole business was repeated: another icy plunge for the pedal extremities. This time the message came through that something was wrong: Adelina normally required baling every other day, and it struck even me that taking out double the usual amount in three hours was distinctly odd. In any event, incoming water did not usually reach the stage of pouring over the carpets before something was done to arrest the flood. All this was further evidence of emergency measures being needed, such as putting the waterways Bradshaw on the bank. "Women and Bradshaw first!" was the emergency call in Adelina.
The leak was running down one side of the keelson, or internal keel; the side in fact where most leaks occurred. This gave rise to the terms "wet side" and "dry side", the latter being merely soggy. The descriptions caused confusion in amiable guests who might, after dinner ask if they could give a hand with the baling, there being insufficient room to help with the washing-up. Baling consisted of scooping water from the flat bilge with a dustpan, emptying the pan into a cauldron (we used a preserving pan for that and a variety of on-board duties), then hurling the contents of the cauldron through a shoulder-high window. The window was small and the preserving pan large, so that by the time twenty or so pansful had been ejected, tiredness distracted the aim. Half the contents would hit the side of the window and splash back into the bilges, soaking the baler en route. The work was good for the waistline but bad for the temper.
After reading of the baling procedure, the reader may doubt that whatever the degree of somnolence, anyone could possibly hurl out thirty consignments of water and still go back to bed with a tranquil mind. One could. Getting down to the serious business of finding the source of what was obviously a major leak seemed only slightly less difficult than finding the source of the Nile, as the bilges were covered by thirty heavy floorboard sections, made even less convenient to move by the bits of furniture standing on top. Narrowness is not equatable with mass.
Something had to be done, and the advice given on appraising the office of the leak ("find a plumber") was not helpful. With hindsight it seems incomprehensible that the thought did not occur of pulling up a couple of widely spaced boards to identify the general source of the inflow. The influx was rapid: twenty buckets or so had to be taken out every half hour, and after this had been done a couple of times, even more than half the contents of the buckets came straight back. Between baling, consecutive boards were lifted up, each one revealing the stream still chuckling past. The culprit hole was finally unmasked, nearly sixty weary feet from where the lifting operations had started.
After some fifty years of living together in perfect amity, a nail and a plank had decided to split up, the nail doing the honourable thing and getting out. The gap left by its departure was the source of the mini-geyser gushing in, trying to pursuade Adelina the time was nigh to sink beneath the waves again; maybe in order for her to find the nail. All morning was occupied in finding and plugging the leak, largely on account of my own dimness in not proceeding intelligently. In retrospect, I think a stethoscope is probably a pretty handy diagnostic tool to have on board a leaky narrow boat.
To avoid such emergencies, and more importantly to cater for them whilst the boat was unattended, providing a pumping system assumed priority. The boss had been very understanding about the sudden absence, viewing my rather novel excuse realistically. After all, the world is full of ailing grandmothers, marrying cousins and bad colds as justifications for a morning off, but "the house is sinking" as a reason takes some beating.
However, I could see from the situation at Old Ford that the boss's understanding might have to be invoked for a whole series of events, without my originality being strained in any way. To eliminate a once-used reason for emergency absences and departures might pave the way for other catastrophes at least sounding credible. Such would also make for easier living. An automatic bilge pump was clearly the answer; but a production line model cost at least £30: rather more than a depleted pocket could stand, and not much less than Adelina had cost in the first place.
Fortunately, the Exchange and Mart, plus government surplus shops, came to the rescue, and the final cost of the Duckett model was 30/-. Petrol pumps intended for fuelling bomber engines proved so well suited to evacuating bilges it was hard to discount the idea that their designer had such a demob job for them when they were still on the drawing board. Sitting flat on the boat bottom, blade protected by a bit of kitchen gauze, the device emitted ecstatic gulps and gurgles when pumping was in progress. The noises suggested that sucking up bilgewater and spitting it out again constituted the Nirvana of pumpkind.
To tell the pump opening time had arrived, a level controller, designed to inform a pilot his fuel was getting low, was set to trigger off when the bilge water was high. Again, whatever its military purpose, the controller could have been tailor-made to meet the needs of elderly incontinent narrow boats. Finally, to connect the two, there was a massive relay, sturdy enough to activate the guns on a battleship. Its sonorous "klunk" on going into action would wake the profoundest sleeper, telling him the boat was about to sink but not to worry, the system had everything in hand.
To power that system there were ex-bus batteries: weighty, impressive to look at, and almost useless in operation. They cost £5. When fully charged the batteries could run the pump two or three times only, and one wondered how many passengers they had helped to strand; but I suppose that was why they were "ex". To charge them, a tiny? generator joined the club; air cooled, petrol-engined and surely one of the smallest ever produced. The mini-power station was designed to be dropped with paratroopers, ostensibly to keep their communication system pepped up at all times. Hopefully the troopers took a couple of crates of carrier pigeons for emergencies, as the charger was a most temperamental little brute.
Alternatively, the device could have been a super subtle secret weapon designed to be dropped behind enemy lines, like a tiny petrol driven Trojan Horse.
Whilst I was away on holiday, a long-suffering girl friend moved in to look after the boat. The lass naively asked what the job entailed. Told of the complex system of starting the generator, charging the batteries, and then connecting the level controller, pump and relay into one big happy family, she almost departed there and then, in tears. I suspect that had I told her the truth about the loo, she would have done so; but I kept that sordid little revelation until she was committed and I was almost on the train. As it was, unbelieving but intrigued she stayed for a demonstration.
The whole thing went like clockwork; though figuratively rather than literally as the charger, which started without a hitch, emitted a roar that could be heard streets away and in battle would have been a better Invasion Warning than loudspeakers broadcasting troop movements. The petrol engine shot into action almost on seeing the starting cord; the batteries foamed at the mouth; and on a couple of buckets of water being emptied into the bilges, the whole corporate mass clicked, clunked and whirred with impressive efficiency, the end result being that the pump sprang to life and ejected water with the enthusiasm and volume rate of a fire hydrant. As soon as the bilge was empty, the pump stopped, but waited expectantly, as though ready to pounce on anything so much as a raindrop creeping inside.
The holiday was delightful, and I returned bronzed and fit to find a nearly beserk, virtually ex-girlfriend anxiously, indeed belligerently, waiting for me. From the moment of departure, the charger failed to start; the batteries quickly became too weak to make a frog's leg twitch; and of course the boat, lamenting its departed master, began to sob silently but copiously, and inwardly. It was back to the bucket and shovel. A weak but tense voice told me that eighty buckets a day had been baled, and asked what was I going to do about the situation. The rejoinder "start the charger" nearly provoked mayhem, whilst only exhaustion prevented complete hysteria when the wretched thing sprang into life at the first pull of the starting cord. The influx of amps made the whole conglomerate leap into co-ordinated life, just as at the demonstration, whilst the broken female looked on incredulously. I can only assume that as the poor girl was practising swinging the charger round, in preparation for throwing it at the deceiver on his return, a blockage in the fuel pipe was dislodged.
Probably the attack of the vapours brought on by the incident so unnerved her that she unthinkingly accepted the miscreant's proposal of marriage. The offer was not intended to be some sort of recompense; the only real gesture in that direction would have been offering immediately to sell Adelina for firewood. The fact that such a supreme sacrifice was not demanded, allied with admiration for her doggedness in keeping Adelina afloat (a lesser girl would have gone back home and left the boat to founder) more than reinforced my wholly genuine emotions. In addition to all her other merits therefore, Adelina was quite rightly able to assume the mantle of a marriage broker. The thought is sobering though, that had that evil little offspring of Battersea Power Station performed correctly, I might well have remained a bachelor.
However, the machine literally encompassed its own downfall. Once under way the petrol engine provided far more power than the generator needed, and to dissipate surplus Watts, the machine wandered about like a robot jogger.
To avoid self-inflicted damage whilst working off steam, the itinerant was chained to a bollard. On charging days the mighty infant could be seen and heard as it strained against the encumbering fetters.
Shortly before we left Old Ford, those fetters were slipped, leaving the infant free to trundle all over the wharf. The bellowing gave a reasurrance that all was well. Reaching the wharf edge, the attractions of a new sensation (experiencing water-cooling instead of air-cooling) must have proved irresistable, and in the charger jumped. Those familiar with The Mikado will know Koko's sad little song about the tom tit's suicide. Well, the words aptly describe the end of the charger, save that there were no echoes, only a few oily bubbles to accompany the last gurgle.
Having, prior to the charger's suicide, sorted out, literally, how to keep one's head above water, what were the next requirements for gracious living? Our social values suggested keeping clean, providing some form of sanitation, and obtaining heat and light; priority depending upon the mood of the moment or the season of the year.
As far as washing was concerned, let it be denied from the outset that Adelina's bachelor occupants never washed. The early provision of bathing facilities was essential even in the Long Eaton days simply in order that the workers would be permitted to use public transport after a day on the boat. A sink was fitted, lack of workshop equipment dictating that the rim should rest on the top of the hull; i.e. about 4' 6" from the floor. This position was rather too high for general use, and fears of being responsible for slipped discs in short grubby friends led to a low platform being built for the washer to stand on.
Such elevation of the user gave an air of theatricality to the simple business of face-washing; an air enhanced when people of differing heights used the equipage. If a short (presumably clean) person gave way to someone tall, who forgot to take away the platform, on climbing on there would be a thump as head hit ceiling, followed by imprecation, followed by rumble as platform was kicked across the cabin. It was possible to sit outside the boat and follow the whole queue in the mind's eye.
Like all the structures on the boat, the platform was massive and inconvenient; but also had a vicious streak. Without warning the platform would tilt over on unwary toes, and cause yelps to be added to the range of sounds in our indigenous water music. Eventually, most people needing to wash risked total immersion by leaning over and into the canal, or found a dark carriage on the train going home.
For all-over washing we tried to use, as I am sure others before us had tried, a vast pottery shower base acquired from the Hutchings. We saw it when moored with them at Hillmorton for a while, en route to London. David, noble and generous soul, detecting an idle interest in the monstrosity alongside the Hutchings' residence (an elegantly converted narrow boat named Ftatateeta) expatiated upon the merits of showers on boats. He pointed out that, as he had installed a bath on Ftata-teeta, the shower was redundant and ours for the taking.
Their boat bathroom was a delight: a cottagey tin bath installed in the tiny colourful cabin, with rose and castle surround: and a suitably coy female nude, painted on the wall opposite the bath, smirked at the bather. The room looked like a miniature of the sort of ablutions block Cleopatra would have planned had she decided to live on her barge. With considerable (and subsequently understandable) eagerness, David helped us hump the cumbersome shower on board Adelina. Hernias nearly resulted from lifting the thing, and the mass was enough slightly to alter Adelina's trim. That beastly lump of misused china clay quickly became more of an incubus than the wood, and far less useful. After all, the wood could be moved about by one person, whilst the shower needed at least three, and bits chipped off the shower could not be used to feed the stove in winter.
The great square block was massive, big enough to allow a shallow wallow, chilly underfoot, and totally useless as a shower bath in a boat. Of necessity resting on the boat bottom, the outlet was about a foot below the outside water level, so that fitting a waste pipe would simply have flooded the boat.
Installing the shower high enough for water to run out, apart from requiring a concrete plinth, would have entailed showering in a position similar to that adopted naturally by Quasimodo.
Alternatively a cabinet could have been put on the deck the size of a sentry box; and the bridges wouldn't have liked that. David later confessed he had been through all the permutations of possible uses after he had been given the thing by a kind boating friend; and was relieved when he heard the base thump into Adelina's hold prior to departing from his life. Though he thought we might find a use for the object, he'd surmised, as Adelina and trophy departed from Hillmorton, that before long we would be looking for a boat dweller who couldn't live without a shower bath.
Actually using the base for showers was only undertaken when the daily underground journey became a bit like the deodorant adverts: a row of passengers looking sideways at someone obviously not using Airwick or some similar lotion. The ordeal took hours to prepare, resulted in much evil bickering, awd was uncomfortable in the extreme. In winter the boat took days to dry out after someone had showered, and the operation might have made an on-looker think Adelina was the headquarters of some sado-masochist cult.
Preparations for a shower started two hours in advance: two and a half if the stove failed to light first time. When the fire had burned up, hot pink rusty water from the paraffin can was ladled into buckets. The number of buckets required depended upon the degree of self-indulgence of the Sybarite preparing for the ablutions; about half a bucket was the norm. When the bathwater had been prepared, more ex-WD bargains in the form of a stirrup pump and hose were positioned. Then the victim — sorry, Sybarite — stood, attempting to
shower as his associate pumped a stream of water on the walls, the roof, usually the towel and occasionally the showerer. Generally speaking, the colder the weather and water, the better the aim.
In addition to being chilly to the feet, the glaze on the pottery was also very slippery, which, allied with the piles of timber littering the cabin, made the operation border on being hazardous. On one occasion when one of us was showering at night, the misdirected stream of water hit the hot glass chimney of the paraffin lamp, which shattered, adding broken glass underfoot to the hazards. In the darkness, the bucket got knocked over in the melee, leaving an unrinsed shivering victim cowering in the bath, waiting for light to be restored and glass to be removed. Even if the exercise was more or less a success from the point of view of getting clean, there remained those gooey soap suds to be scooped out of the shower and lost somewhere. All in all the drawbacks of the system gave good grounds for remaining dirty and ignoring any meaningful sideways stares on the underground.
The discovery of showers in our respective office buildings led to a rapid decline in the use of Adelina's bathing facilities and coal was kept in the shower. Even for that purpose it couldn't be classed a success, being too shallow to hold much: a real bath would have been far better. Many months later, when living on the Basingstoke Canal, measures to bury the shower were about to be taken (the shovel was actually raised) when a visitor, full of enthusiasm about his own boat conversion plans saw the unwanted hunk of sanitary ware. He was allowed to continue enthusing about the merits of showers on boats and the singular beauty (to him) of one particular manifestation of the potter's art. Why interrupt words that were like music in the ears of his shower-weary listeners?
Subtly, using a few laudatory observations passed by at least one other person in similar circumstances, the rapturous one was led to enquire whether the shower base was for sale. Reluctantly we allowed our outsize Souvenir of Hillmorton to be taken away gratis. As the happy new owner eagerly loaded the bete blanche into his van, with no less eager help from Adelina's relieved crew, the latter mused on whether the poor fellow had a coal stove, or at least friends in the pre-embryonic stages of boat conversion.
If external cleanliness was fraught with difficulty, attending to inner cleanliness verged on the perilous. The closest loo was in the next door timber yard, and limited access rights had been granted. The limitations were imposed more by location than by regulation, for to get there was a dangerous journey, undertaken only by the desperate or uninhibited. The barbed wire encrusted fence at one end of the wharf was matched by a brick wall at the other end.
The wall, between wharf and timber factory, was built to project out over the canal; either that or part of the wharf had subsided leaving a foundation-less wall suspended in mid air.
In theory this prevented access from one side of the wall to the other, and in practice the overhang did prevent ready access from one side of the wall to the other. The key word is "ready". Fortunately, logs from the timber yard jutted out over the canal, so the hardy or anguished could embrace the wall, and keeping one foot on the wharf, feel round with the spare foot for a log somewhere on the other side of the wall. Then like a mountain goat, he or she would leap around. The manoeuvre had to be carried out "blind", as the necessarily close embrace of the wall whilst hopping from one side to the other meant the only view in transit was a close-up of a brick.
On damp, misty evenings the logs became slimy, adding another hazard to the first part of the trip. New visitors, unforewarned, would at some stage in the evening ask brightly for the loo, be a little surprised to learn of its whereabouts, and become alarmed on being given a five minute description of how to get there and the precautions to be observed en route. One unfortunate who was absent about thirty minutes and almost became the object of a search party, did suggest a map should be provided — but the changing position of the timber piles in the yard would have entailed a new edition every week.
The description of the outstretched leg movements needed to negotiate the wall was anything but reassuring to guests, particularly those wearing tight garments. On one occasion we actually had to lend a spare pair of trousers to a female guest whose pencil skirt would not have allowed her to get to first base; and slacks quickly became modish dinner dress, if not de rigeur. Loose flowing gowns were certainly all right for getting round the wall, but tended to be a bit inconvenient on the next leg of the journey, which was the trek through the timber yard itself.
Our guardian gremlin, it hardly seems necessary to say, had ensured that the facility was in the corner of the yard remote from the point of entry from Adelina's wharf. The yard itself, especially at night, rather resembled a maze, and though probably very tidy by timber yard standards, was not exceptional in having heaps of timber all over the place. The heaps bristled with projecting planks, poised to snag stockings and dresses. Also the obstacles had no fixed abode, as the heaps were run down over a few weeks and then replaced by stocks built up in other positions.
Having negotiated the timber traps, the only remaining trivialities were finding the watchman, convincing him they were not trying to steal the logs, borrowing his key to the loo and they were there. I don't know what happened if the watchman wasn't watching, being absent, say, whilst sipping a mid-shift pint over the road. No-one ever returned complaining of a fruitless journey, so either the watchman was always in position or a force majeure situation was declared when he wasn't.
Preparation for the Second Social Event of the evening (the first was actually getting onto the wharf, to be described later, one ordeal at a time is enough) would begin with the lighting of an old railway lantern to illuminate the intrepid looer's path. The lamp was placed on the brick wall whilst the wall-passing phase was in progress. In these circumstances a gentleman would hold the lamp for a lady whilst she swung round, then hand it to her once the logs had been traversed, an interesting example of the way in which primitive societies evolve their own social codes. (Anthropologists take note!).
In time this particular variant of "powdering the nose" became known as "seeing the logs". Once tried, few were eager to make the passage through the timber yard more often than absolutely necessary, and the whole system was the finest measure imagineable for cutting down on liquor consumption.
Eventually the problem was more or less solved. One particularly inflexibly built female friend, a regular visitor, gave me a lift home in her mini van. An antique dealer by trade, she had just been to Portobello Road. I commented admiringly on the fine late eighteenth century night table reposing in the back of the vehicle. "It's for you" she said laconically, "I couldn't stand those bloody logs any longer".
As for lighting, the soft glow of candlelight was much in evidence, distributed by an interesting series of two-burner candelabra fastened at regular intervals to the sides of the cabin. Aesthetically very pleasing, the brackets were jointly designed by a committee of fine engineering brains, with the result that they dripped wax on the floor from the moment of ignition and ripped the flesh open of anyone walking too close to them.
My father, having unsuccessfully tried to persuade me to pay the bills for repairing the sleeves of his suit, eventually decided to remove the cause of the nuisance by making candles redundant. He presented Adelina with a beautiful pair of Victorian oil lamps, that served well until electricity arrived and even now occasionally grace a dinner table. The lamps had a curious history.
Years previously my father and I attended a sale of effects from Townhead, a mansion in the pleasant Yorkshire town of Settle. Despairing ever of selling the vast amounts of antiques, bric-a-brac and sheer junk that had a accummulated over the years, the auctioneer was eventually reduced to selling off entire rooms' contents as job lots. The sale was a bargain-hunter's Paradise as most of the rooms, particularly those in the extensive cellars, had not been disturbed by the elderly occupants of the house for many years. We purchased, unseen, one of the cellar rooms for ten shillings.
Our bargain buy turned out to have a strange range of objects, principal of which were two old-fashioned vacuum cleaners, and a mysterious bolted chest. One vacuum cleaner was small and portable, though the vacuuming skivvy probably needed to have an hour or so on the parallel bars every morning to keep her fit for the daily dusting routine. The cleaner had a shaft terminating in the usual funnel-shaped hook through which dust was sucked. Encasing the shaft was a bellows device providing both suction and dust storage. One end was fixed, the other could slide up and down the shaft. The doughty duster held the shaft firmly in one hand, the movable end of the bellows in the other. Simply pushing the shaft backwards and forwards activated the bellows, and also made the funnel end move backwards and forwards over the floor, snuffling up dust.
The large vacuum cleaner was a much more elaborate affair, requiring plenty of working space, good solid foundations, and at least two operators. Perhaps the owners bought the vacuum cleaner then built the right sort of house round it. Cleaning day must have been a memorable sight. The two men undertaking the task would stagger in with the centre piece of the contraption, possibly this stage would even require a third hand to give a bit of a lift, for the device was monstrously heavy.
The works consisted of a platform about six feet long by two feet wide, with a large box mounted on one end containing the bellows, and a five foot high cylinder perched on the other end, in which the dust collected. The whole assembly was painted bright red and gave the impression that moonlighting as a fire pump would have been quite practicable. The ancillary equipment, hose and dust sucker, were large in proportion and each must have required a separate one-man journey to bring them to the arena of action. Man One climbed onto the platform: in spite of being six foot long (the platform, not the man), there was still not enough standing room, and a small shelf sliding out of the bottom provided another two feet of space. Man Two would in the meantime attach one end of the elephantine hose to the dust cylinder and the other to the dust-sucker-up.
The latter was a small platform on wheels, and rather resembled a mini-hovercraft. Man One then grasped the handle sticking out of the bellows box and heaved backwards and forwards to activate the suction. Man Two trundled the platform about the floor, enabling it to gobble up just about everything within reach. Such was the scale of all the equipment connected with the device, that a head count of domestic animals should have been carried out after every cleaning session: kittens and puppies would have been drawn in without a hiccup. Naturally we gave the thing a go: making a sound like an irritated King Kong, the bellows worked in reverse and deposited the dust of years all over the room.
The chest proved to be the most interesting find of all. After prising back the bolts, the lid was opened to reveal newspaper swathed bundles. All the newspapers dated from 1914, specifically from the period immediately prior to the outbreak of World War One. They, a few Indian newspapers of the same period, and a faded list inside supplied the story. Members of the family living in India at the outbreak of the War decided to return home, taking their household effects with them. This particular box had never been unpacked, in fact such was the size of Townhead, one could quite believe the case was lost on arrival and not seen again until the contents of the house were sold.
What is more likely, however, is that the house's own lighting plant, which we also purchased, had started up coincidentally with the crates' arrival, and rendered the contents of our case redundant. Unwrapping the newspapers revealed a collection of exquisite old oil lamps; the case was full of them. At the time of purchase we lived near the village of Clapham, in a seventeenth century Toll House only slightly more refined than Adelina (this sort of thing runs in the family), and all the lamps were immediately put to good use.
After the Townhead lighting plant had been installed and commissioned at the Tollbar Cottage, most of the lamps were given away, but the two finest were retained, and so eventually passed to Adelina. When power comes in, oil lamps usually go out, but the arrival on board of 'bus batteries and generator certainly did not herald the doom of the wick. Their feeble and uncertain supply of Watts was harnessed to torchlight bulbs to provide emergency lighting only, and all the time Adelina remained in Bow, the soft gracious light from her oil lamps was a feature of living and entertaining.
Fresh water was always a problem, and had to be carried from over on the street side of the factory, an operation intrinsically difficult but rendered even more so when the dog was being taken for walkies at the same time and, for reasons to be disclosed later, had to be carried part of the way. We never knew the joys of having water piped on board, or even anywhere near Adelina. So arduous was the journey to get aqueous supplies, that quite a proportion of the freshly acquired liquid was lost as sweat in getting it.
11. The light from the oil lamps...
12. The fine old coal stove...
The final ingredient in this recipe for gracious living was heat, for warmth and for cooking. The fine old coal stove purchased in Long Eaton warmed the cabin admirably and gave ample hot water. However we regretted the amount of water vapour generated at the same time, which could make the boat resemble a Turkish Bath on nights when the fire was well stoked. James Watt was inspired by a rattling kettle lid, I was inspired by water, condensing on the ceiling, dripping down my neck.
From coal preparation to fuel utilisation is but one short step: I decided to install a central heating system. A book on plumbing, masses of boss white and hemp (Ann told me later she used to dream of these commodities, so much did "pass the boss white, pass the hemp" become part of everyday life), and lengths of thick galvanised piping, what better ingredients for a honeymoon? So much better than all those syrupy proposals involving Paris, beaches, or the untamed wild usually dished out to newlyweds by the travel agents.
Before long Adelina had a surprisingly efficient,
heating loop, carrying nearly-boiling hot water away from the stove to the prow of
the boat. The gradient was slight, but usually adequate to ensure circulation, though
not always. One night when a number of visitors were on board, the boiler started to
live up to its name. The release pipe in the bow was trying to look and sound like a
small-scale Old Faithful. Suspecting a blockage, we were about to evacuate the boat
and summon the fire brigade when one of the guests, a real plumber, diagnosed the
trouble. The mass of people present had so tilted the pipes that the water couldn't
flow, and a hasty re-arrangement of seats had to be carried out before the system began to work again.
That was the night a few of us were watching slides, canal scenes
of course, and one of the viewers, struck by the realism of the pictures, said she could
almost hear water running. The conversational pause created by the remark produced a sudden silence: we could all hear water running. Everyone went down on
their knees, not to pray for salvation in the event of a Second Flood (of what avail is a
sinking Ark?), but to try and find what was happening.
An immersed open seam was
the cause of the little waterfall cheerily adding sound effects. The seam was in a part
of the hull normally out of the water, which resulted in the wood drying out and the
seam opening slightly. When our numerous visitors came on board submersion of
the gap took place, and water just poured in. Appropriate though the gurgling was to
the scenes being displayed, nobody felt like baling. Once more the seating positions
were changed, until an arrangement was found that kept the central heating at work
and the leak at rest. What with moving about to keep the stove from boiling and the
boat from sinking, everyone was quite exhausted by the time the evening ended, but
by common consent, all considered the incidents far more entertaining than musical chairs.
The stove did some rudimentary cooking and would even soften a chicken, provided the cook was far-sighted enough to put the bird in the oven two days before the food was required. High speed cooking was executed on a paraffin stove, my father's wedding present. The knobs controlling its twin burners became stiffer and stiffer to turn, and eventually broke off, leaving pliers as the only means of controlling the temperature. The pliers usually slipped in manipulation and nipped the fingers, so for convenience, sticking plaster was kept with the tea, making the one often led to needing the other. The stove had a fuel tank that gave a soft gurgling sound as the liquid ran out, not dissimilar in an over-sensitive ear to that made by a liquid running in. Consternation was occasionally caused by a sound foreshadowing imminent submersion which was, in fact, only the stove girding up its loins to boil a kettle.
And so, after a few months, there was Adelina, almost the Pickwickian vision — certainly the lighting was of the right period — and with her own special atmosphere. Guests allergic to that atmosphere didn't exactly come out in a skin rash, but rarely came a second time. Those who liked it, and there were many, loved Adelina almost as much as did her owners, and for those who were in that category, the experience of being on her was agreeable, the setting novel, and the ambience stimulating. Everything added up to a complete justification for the decision to keep Adelina, bring her to London, and make her into a home. Both for living and entertaining, a narrow boat has something special to offer, but our boat's quality was enhanced by the "other world" feeling of the actual mooring on Ducketts. Up to now the stages in the transformation of a once derelict hulk into a cheerful and stimulating home have been chronicled, but quite a lot of that stimulus came from the unique nature of the site itself. I have seen many residential boat moorings, but none of them have had the precise blend of adventure, inconvenience, and opportunity for displaying athletic ability as ours in Bow, E3.