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 7: WATER MUSIC
Living on the Basingstoke allowed certain very significant changes in life style to take place: we could get fuel without the coalman risking a heart attack; electricity became within reach; and alongside the canal was a copse in which sanitary waste could be buried. Of such simple pleasures is life composed: anyone doubting the assertion should take a large family on a canal holiday and endure travelling for a few days without a sanitary station coming into sight.
Crossing over the lock bridge, almost on the first day at the new mooring, I ran into George, an old friend I had not seen since University days. Possessor of a remarkable tenor voice, he could emit high C's and even D's with ease and stentorian clarity. On a good night the apparent absence of an upper limit to vocal navigation made one regret the omission of H, I, and J from the stave. Bad asthma prevented him from using these unique vocal gifts professionally, and when his Caruso-like notes were being demonstrated the lights had to be turned off, for fear shyness would bring on an attack of breathlessness.
As an admirer of the late Enrico via his records, my comparison is intended to be descriptive, not flippant. After discoursing with pleasure on events of previous years, conversation naturally turned to what each of us was doing in the district. Asked where I lived, the nearby hulk of Adelina, clearly visible from the bridge, provided a mute but eloquent answer. George lived in a modern bijou detached residence, with an address showing him to be our nearest neighbour on terra firma.
Further discussion about living on a boat, and the absence of such common features of modern life as taps, led to an offer of water supplies from the stand-pipe in his garden. Using the source involved a short walk: but apart from the minor declivities common in urban landscapes, the walk was largely in the horizontal plane; a change from the vertical Alpine manoeuvres involved in tea making at Old Ford. Also the dog didn't have to be carried.
The can carrying continued for some time, but as we gradually got to know our neighbours, much more convenient, alternative, and rather obvious sources of supply were shown to be viable. Our growing friendship with the inhabitants of the craft moored next door was often toasted in deliciously prepared tea and coffee. Canal dwellers tend to discuss personal matters freely, and such a question as "where do you bury your sanitary waste?" is regarded as neither impertinent nor indelicate; it has the same sort of significance as "where do you park your car?"
In a similar vein we asked casually where their water came from, as they didn't seem to be on particularly close terms with any of the nearby landlubbers. The query evoked a vague reply about there being a tap somewhere down by the Floating Homes, and the topic was dropped.
Growing intimacy breeds intimate disclosures and one evening, in a mood inspired more by the contents of a bottle than a teapot, they Confessed All. In our neighbour's early days on the Basingstoke, they too had carried cans, but from a spot so inconvenient as to make our source on Duckett's seem as though it was on tap. I really doubted this could be so: the next stage to Duckett's drinking-waterlessness in my book was the Sahara, and as none of the neighbours had the aspect of a dried
prune, they must have remained internally awash with reasonable ease.
Nonetheless in the benign mood induced by their forgiveness of my playing the wrong stave in the wrong clef (but on the right instrument) in a recorder trio, I accepted the claim. Revelations followed. One day, longing for tea, but disinclined to go on a route march for the primary raw material of the brew, they had looked longingly at the canal water, commenting on its clarity and speculating on its potability.
The water looked clean; fish not only survived but were so agile and healthy, they were hardly ever caught by anglers who habitually drank purified water. Anyone who accidentally fell into the canal was simply dried out and sent home. An unfortunate falling into the lower Thames, part of the noble stream supplying drinking water to millions, was rushed to hospital for stomach pump treatment.
Our neighbours resolved to be bold, and after initially tasting the water with the circumspection of an Osmin finally abandoned themselves, like that gentleman, to wholesale swigging of the stuff. They never carried another can for their own needs. We followed suit, and arm-stretching aqueous burdens became things of the past; well, almost so.
A small hand pump drawing directly from the canal supplied all our cold water needs; but for visitors with delicate sensibilities, we preserved the fiction of a can. However, when the can was removed "before their very eyes" for filling purposes, it was simply taken round next door and filled from the neighbour's canal water tank. They, when entertaining similarly fastidious types, observed the same ritual and filled up from us. On one occasion I actually passed a member of their crew in the bushes between the boats: each of us on a visit with the same objective. Mildly hysterical and unable to continue without giving the game away, we found a secluded spot between the boats and filled up by the direct method of dipping the can in the water, and returned to our respective tea parties with eyes and containers brimming.
The water in the canal was genuinely and singularly clean. Sales of water were thought to be one of the Company's principal sources of income, and pure water springs in the region of Greywell, where the canal's one tunnel was constructed, were the major feeders. The only time we had any qualms was when, on a ramble much higher up the canal in the region of Frimley, we found a whole mass of horses heads in one of the locks. They were in an advanced stage of decomposition, and their fragrance was not really compatible with that of Earl Grey tea.
However, the carrion had obviously been there a long time, much longer than we had been drinking the water. In any case, shortly below Frimley the canal seemed almost to dry up, with just a hardly noticeable trickle down the middle of the weed filled ditch. Even so, the refreshing cup of tea didn't seem half as palatable when we returned home: visions of a lock full of unmentionables galloped before the eyes, and a firm resolve was made to carry on carrying.
Our neighbours took the whole episode calmly, only observing that they had seen the objects a couple of months earlier and then identified the collection as a herd of cattle heads. The disclosure was followed by the nonchalant assertion that as the remains were then fresher, their own identification was more likely to be correct than ours. Feeling a detailed zoological quiz was indelicate, the Adelinans did not pursue the subject. In a short time (about the duration of one journey to fetch a pail of water), the strain on the arm erased the nightmare in the mind, and Adelina's crew and all drank "deep soothing draughts of weed free water from the Basingstoke" [see Ch 11] once more.
My father never trusted the water or me where slaking his thirst was concerned, and whenever he spent a few days on the boat, brought his own personal supply in a plastic container, which he alone replenished. Offers by me to fill up the container were firmly and brusquely refused, and off Pa would go to the nearby garage, where he seemed to have permanent water rights.
As the original supply came from Morecambe, 250 miles away, as long as it was available guests could be offered the ultimate in epicurean luxury. In addition to the usual "Chinese or Indian?" they were asked "Lancashire water or Surrey water?" The choice might have been extended to "boiled on the paraffin stove or the coal stove?'' but as opting for the latter would have probably meant the guest remaining on board for the night, the question was never posed.
The ultimate test of potability was health: my wife and I never suffered from sudden and inexplicable cramps; none of us showed signs of sprouting scales or growing tails; and my swimming didn't improve; so the water must have been all right. The children, when they came along, were notably free from childish ailments, yet were weaned on home waters.
The boat on which our neighbours lived, Godolphin, was a solid craft of sober aspect, but with a purple history. Built as a dredger, she apparently never dredged, though lifting up the floorboards revealed a pair of rails running from one end to the other, on which her debris-extracting crane was supposed to have run. Why it never did so is inexplicable, as the Basingstoke is one canal where a dredger could never be underemployed. Maybe the canal became so un-navigable that access to the sections requiring dredging became impossible.
Eventually, for want of a better use, the hull was converted to a three-story residence. In her mini-skyscraper state, she must have resembled the Crystal Palace, as the top story was a greenhouse. Dame Rumour whispered that the lower floor, used as a restaurant, had venal delicacies on the Table d'Hote; and one hopes that the man ordering a nice fresh tart got what he really wanted.
The cabins were reputed to have been numerous with numbered doors; the numbers still remained when we went on board but the greenhouse and upper story were dismantled when legal restraints put an end to her skittish career. The old lady settled down to a new role as a respectable family home; but the traditions of hospitality, if not quite as limitless as previously, still remained.
She was the first boat on the canal to have real live electricity from a power station. When our temporary hook-up to the barge on the other side was disrupted for non-technical reasons (we had a flaming row), an anguished cry to the ex-dredger occupants brought relief in the form of a cable throbbing with Watts. Though the line was never capable of carrying much of a load, and was intended only as a temporary supply, that slender wire endured as Adelina's link with the Central Electricity Generating Board for the whole of our occupancy of the mooring.
The arrival of mains electricity allowed wondrous things to come into our lives, though ultimately, due to an unavoidable mixture of four different distribution systems, life became rather complex. At the time of Adelina's arrival on the Basingstoke, she still had the original network powered by pensioned-off bus batteries. Since the generator's dive into the Hertford Union, the supply had become so enfeebled that the current could not even have propelled a Dinky car.
But help was on its way: the slender black cable from our neighbours, with its reasonable certainty of supply, had a delightfully civilising effect. Simply installing a battery charger enabled
the pumps to be activated, and caused the torch-bulb lights to glow enough to help the nocturnal traveller on his way.
Just as a shortage of energy causes civilisations to decay, an energy source allows them to develop, and our boat began to undergo a sort of mini Industrial Revolution. Though the changes were not quite as drastic as those of the more famous revolution, they were just as remarkable in their effect on the quality of life of the boat's occupants. The Viking standards were overtaken and a late nineteenth century standard of gadgetry was rapidly approached. As the maze of electricals spread, there occurred a sequence of events among the various appliances that made one feel that they almost had a life of their own, and performed their duties as they saw fit; rather than as the result of some pre-set pattern of behaviour imposed by the humans.
Take as a first instance the distribution systems. The first one was simply bell wire, fastened to the beams. Came along mains electricity, leading to well charged batteries, and a plumper wire became necessary. Along came system number two, which consisted simply of thick bare copper wires, nailed along the interior of the hull about a foot apart. Wood insulates, so connecting batteries to one end of the pair allowed any device connected across the wires to enjoy such electricity as the batteries were in a mood to send out.
The method was very convenient, a bit too convenient in fact, as all sorts of things that had nothing to do with the supply tried to get in on the act. A particularly mysterious short-circuit demonstrated the nosiness of the other equipment. When the lights and everything else failed, I made a careful examination of every item legitimately connected to the wires. Nothing was at fault, even after several checks. Only when one followed Sherlock Holmes's dictum of examining the impossible was the trouble spotted. All the things properly connected to the wires had been looked at and found in good order, but what about the things not supposedly connected to the wires?
A hand-operated Moulinex mill turned out to have entered into an immorally close relationship with a cheese grater: the mill hanging down and the grater sticking up; but each resting against a wire. What was no doubt intended to be a fleeting kiss (they hadn't even been introduced) was immediately cemented by contact welding; but fortunately the batteries expended their all in that one brief flash. If they hadn't, the entire boat could have gone up in flames, making the unique headline "Boat Destroyed by Cheese Grater" possible for the Guinness Book of Records.
The bilge pump was also connected to the same network, so that when mains electricity arrived, transformer and rectifier were needed to run the motor without frying the windings. At the same time, the wick finally went out of fashion, as ex-WD lamps and fittings adorned every beam. If the result was not quite Blackpool in Autumn, it wasn't Walpurgis Night with a power failure either, which was the lighting effect created by the dimly glowing filaments previously used, as they winked in the gloom.
Life became dominated by pumps, of which three were in regular use. Firstly there was our old friend the bilge pump, rigged up to take water out: let us call him Pump One. The other two brought water in and took it out again. This was not simply a device to use more pumps; between coming in and going out again the water was used for washing, cooking and so forth. The task of getting water into the boat became the responsibility of Pump Two, which hung outside the boat, drawing water from the canal and hurling most of it into the cistern. Sometimes the pump hurled water elsewhere, but these extramural flings were not encouraged.
The cistern was a smart
blue plastic bucket attached to the end of the central heating loop. Pump Two discharged into the bucket, which also contained a level switch, connected to the inevitable relay. As soon as Mrs. Modern Housewife turned on her hot water tap, the level dropped in the plastic bucket; whereupon the ever watchful level controller abruptly told the relay something was amiss, and asked tartly what action was envisaged. Master Relay promptly sent Mr. Volt flashing along the wires to Pump Two which then enthusiastically, even hysterically, poured water into the bucket.
Pumping continued until the level switch, fearing submersion, told the relay to call the whole thing off. The system worked well, if noisily, save that occasionally the vibrations made the hose slip out of the bucket, sending quite a powerful stream of water careering round the cabin. This happened once when I was taking a bath in the front cabin. The memory of relaxing in the steaming bath, then being suddenly hit by a jet of icy canal water, is engraved on the mind.
As none of the gallons teeming in when the hose pipe misbehaved found their way into the bucket, nothing told OC Level Controller to stop the proceedings. Consequently if no-one happened to be in or near the front cabin when such a mishap occurred, the deluge could continue indefinitely, making Adelina look as if she had only just returned from the depths. The cascade was also very bad for the tools.
Pump Number Three was our concession to anti-pollution legislation. The Basingstoke runs into the Wey and the Wey into the Thames. As anyone who has navigated the Thames knows, the River Authorities are understandably not keen to have dirty nappy water discharged directly into their preserves.
Consequently we had to pump all sink waste into a soakaway on the bank, and here Pump Three had a chance to shine. Under the sink was a tank, made out of an old biscuit tin. The tin had Pump Three drawing from the bottom, and the inevitable level controller inside. Waste from the sink ran into the biscuit box; the level controller observed with distaste what was happening, and not caring for the goop pouring in, told the pump to get rid of the nasty stuff pretty smartish like. The palateless pump gobbled and slurped happily until everything was evacuated; belched contentedly a couple of times as air was sucked in, then snoozed until the level controller again announced chow time.
The permutations and combinations of such a system were remarkable, and far exceeded those indicated by the binomial theorem, For example, all the following happened at one time or another: a tap would be left running, so P2 would come on vigorously, water running down the sink until the slumbering P3 was prodded into taking it out again. If the sink plug was in position, P3 continued dreaming, but eventually overflowing water would cascade into the bilges and start P1 up. The two pumps, one running water in and the other running it out, would run alternately until turned off or silenced by a hammer.
As a variation, if the tap was left running but the sludge in P3's feed box was pretty thick, P3 might cope too slowly, so the biscuit box would overflow into the bilges, resulting in all three being on at the same time. Another trick: hose pipe would fall out of bucket, and try very hard, aided by P2, to fill the boat with water. Indignant, P1 would try to stop this happening: result — duet between P1 and P2. The Three Pumpeteers had different tones of operation, and whilst their combination did not recall, for example, the final trio from Faust, the chords had personality, particularly if P3 had to deal with a lumpy bit of effluent.
About this time N.F. Simpson's play One Way Pendulum was on at the Royal Court. The story concerned a man trying to teach a choir of "I speak your weight" weighing machines to sing the Hallelujah Chorus. He could have done wonders with my Pump Room Trio.
All the preceding interplay carried on quite normally and logically during daylight hours, when the pumps could get their proper current supply; and barring occasional mishaps the whole lot worked like clockwork during such periods. The system fell into disarray when the lights were turned on. The light bulbs were all 12 volt: the pumps 24; and they were all fed from the same source. As dusk drew nigh the transformer was adjusted by a description-defying device (an old electric fire and a crocodile clip played starring roles) to deliver the voltage for which the bulbs were manufactured. The bulb voltage was too low for the pumps, so generally speaking we tried to avoid turning on taps after dark. If the bilge pump inconsiderately came on at this period, the mechanism would spend ten minutes audibly complaining, whilst getting out a spot of water that would take only a couple of minutes to dispose of at the usual vigorous revs.
When the weary humans, exhausted by the constant battle between Man and Machine, retired for the night, as a final act of charity the voltage was almost restored to that required by the pumps. This kept them in the current to which they were accustomed and let them, like Lady Macbeth, do quickly whatever they had to do. If during this period a light was turned on, the bulb had a spectacular end, immediately burning out with a plop and a flash. The display was pyrotechnical and costly; but still left one in the dark. To attempt to modify the voltage by feel guaranteed electrocution; but lighting candles seemed a retrograde step.
The solution hit upon was simple and elegant. I never patented the scheme, and persons in similar circumstances are free to use the concept, without any payment whatsoever. By having a bowl of water handy in the sink, if anyone needed a light in the night all he had to do was empty the bowl of water down the sink. Almost immediately — the efficiency of the system was a justifiable source of pride — Pump Three, alert and masterful, swung into action. Doing so put a load on the circuit that dropped the voltage, and if the person was very quick and didn't mind the occasional stubbed toe, he could hare down the cabin and turn on all the lights. The additional load on the bewildered power system made the even more confused P3 pause in its task, reduce speed, and remove the water still more slowly.
The critical path worked out to give the insomniac about ten minutes to do what had to be done, plus time to turn off all the lights.If he didn't, a sharp click indicated that P3 had transferred the bowlful of water to the bank and satisfied with a job well done, gone back to sleep. The click would immediately be followed by a loud, ten bulb "plop" and a bright ten bulb flash as all the cabin lights blew. Of course, if the guest really understood what was happening, he could turn the sink tap on, which would impose an even greater load on the system and drag out the time before bulb blast-off.
The danger of this was that he might forget to turn the tap off; the consequences of that have already been described ad nauseam, and he could be sure that P2 and P3, sounding like mating but exhausted elephants, would keep him and everyone else on board awake until the oversight had been attended to. Conceivably, water could overflow into the bilges, allowing P1, which had been envious of all this activity, to give an obbligato .... but need one go on? The real solution, which everyone eventually adopted, was to follow
Lady Macbeth's precept about speed of action.
One piece of mechanism happily functioned without electricity, namely the sewing machine. The machine was purchased in deference to the little woman's wish to have something with which to make tiny garments. On a visit to my in-laws in Grantham I paid a visit to the local market; then a bargain hunter's dream. Arranged in the Market Square was a series of small enclosures, each allocated to a trader in secondhand goods.
A bell rang at midday and the sales were on; not that there was a stampede when the chime rang out, for as pointed out all this took place before the boom in Victoriana. Antique dealers usually came along to keep an eye open for genuine valuables; but brass bedsteads, rocking chairs, and cumbersome brass pans would be sold for shillings rather than pounds.
Sitting sadly on the cobble stones in one enclosure was one neglected object that took my fancy, namely a little hand operated sewing machine. The model was not in the relatively sleek Singer style of nineteen twenty or thereabouts, but much earlier, with a decorated cast iron bow-shaped arch between driving wheel and needle assembly. As was so often the case with small domestic mechanical devices of the nineteenth century, such as phonographs and typewriters, an engraved panel listed patents under which the machine was manufactured, the latest date being 1873. The sum asked for this museum piece was the outrageous amount of 62-1/2p (12/6); but there was no guarantee!
On returning with the news that we now had a sewing machine, there was joy and delight; the rapture becoming modified on the object being produced, and futile attempts made to get the mechanism working. Though apparently in perfect condition, the little fellow just couldn't do his stuff; maybe he was a bit huffy from being left standing in a draughty market place in the hope of a casual pick-up.
27. Chairman and secretary of the West Byfleet
Junior Anti-sex League.
Back on board Adelina, after undergoing a good clean and enjoying a feed of oil popped into the lubricating holes provided all over the place, the latest mod con began to turn out a neat line of stitches. Possibly being cleaned up made the machine feel like doing a good job, but equally likely the ambience took over and the poor little thing felt wanted and at home once more.
Apart from a dirty habit of dabbing oil stains over everything passing through its ministrations (but only if the oil can had been applied too exuberantly), the machine has been working perfectly ever since. It is in fact the only sewing machine the household has ever possessed. Strong enough to sew a carpet, but delicate enough for my daughters to make their own clothes and curtains, the mechanism has given over a century of service; and the way stitches are being turned out at the moment, might be sewing well into the next century.
By this stage the central heating loop was functioning perfectly and had even been extended into the bedroom; which warmed the latter both directly and indirectly as for tactical reasons the air vent had to be positioned to discharge over the bed. When, as occasionally happened, the boiler became over enthusiastic, the pipe deposited boiling water neatly and accurately on the pillows. As the children grew older, they loved the sight and would usually, after the pipe had been belching forth for a little while, call Mum and Dad saying "pretty, pretty"; letting them know what was happening just too late to avoid a soaked bed.
Naturally, the arrival of two little girls led to some re-arrangement of the domestic offices. The former wasteland had been the first nursery, but when the girls reached toddler status, they
required more room. The aft cabin, once occupied by the American youth, but then used as the Bridal Suite, became the nursery. There the Chairman and Secretary of the West Byfleet Junior Anti-Sex League, as we called Selina and Amelia respectively on a Sunday morning as they clomped from their quarters to ours, reigned more or less supreme.
Boats tend to be damp, and the unheated cabin, rendered damper by its little occupants, had to have some sort of heating. A small stove was installed, but in the usual way kept one end warm whilst barely melting the icicles at the other. Here was where we went for warm air ducting, again installed on a shoe-string budget. Among the numerous objects found on the canal bank was an old motor car radiator. Whether the radiator was there because the car owner had reverted to horse traction, or whether a motorist had totally failed to find the quite complex route from one side of the canal to the other and abandoned his vehicle is unknown; but there it was, and very useful too.
By putting the radiator behind the stove, the metal became warm, and the fins helped to distribute the heat. But that was not all; by attaching a long cardboard tube to the water inlet, and a tiny (ex-WD) extractor fan to the other end, which discharged into the wardrobe, warm air was drawn along the tube and wafted into the cabin. The system was quite effective and eventually dried up the patches of mildew growing on all our clothes in winter.
The rear cabin had its own double doors giving immediate access to the canal. As a safety measure, when the children grew old enough to become mobile, their bunks had grills fitted in front of them, making a visit to say "Good Night" not unlike going to a human zoo. Sitting untidily but happily behind bars, the two little girls played cheerfully; though towards the end of our stay Selina, the elder, learned to raise the single gate that slid in front of both bunks.
The effect was that of a mediaeval portcullis, as she lifted the grill and then let go, laughing gleefully as it rattled down to come to rest against the floor with pronounced thud. Sister Amelia did not like this at all and would usually start to howl, so exasperated parents finally wired the gate closed when positioned, making the resemblance to a zoo even stronger.
28. Winter on the Basingstoke.
Winter on the Basingstoke, as on any rural waterway, had its own special charm. The snow on the trees and on the heavily frozen canal; the chimneys of the boats giving off cosy looking plumes of smoke; the whitened lock and cottage: all combined to give a perfect Christmas card effect. The fact that the canal froze solidly was useful, as the resulting firm support of the ice afforded a chance to tar all round the hull. Normally I had difficulty reaching the side of the hull remote from the bank, as Adelina was so shackled with chains, encumbered with pipes, and festooned with wires that we just never moved her.
In addition, curious variations in level of the Basingstoke required the boat to be moored well out in the canal and kept there by poles, so that she wouldn't ground when next the level dropped. If ever heavy rain fell, we perpared ourselves for a drop in level. The banks were in such poor condition that the moment the water showed signs of reaching its proper height, all the relief weirs were opened. Hence, in spite of the inflow from the skies, the depth actually got less. Having found, by noting the seasonal variations, a spot where Adelina was more or less horizontal at all states of the tide, she stayed there.
Only in winter, when the ice was firm enough for a person to walk right round the hull, was the annual tarring carried
out. Window cleaning was also easier than at other times, as the required position when the water was fluid entailed hanging upside down from the cabin top for long periods. The frost was not an unmixed blessing, as every night the pump in the canal (Pump Two) froze, leaving us waterless until Ann had walked along the ice to pour a kettlefull of boiling water on the frozen mechanism. We took turns to rise early and bring all system to "go", but more often than not Ann took my early turn: the girls demanded attention at an unearthly hour, and a little trip along the ice was a relief after mucking-out those two.
In time, as the maze of electrical circuits grew ever more complex, I began to have delusions of grandeur over their control, gradually installing and extending an ever more elaborate switchboard in the overcrowded front cabin. The bath [see Ch 8] had gone by then but a treadle printing press had appeared, plus a small lathe; and filling up the remaining empty space was the control board with dials, resistors, relays and coloured lights.
I could tell how often the bilge pump had gone on (this was of greater significance than a gale warning to Adelina); detect if any fuses had blown; measure whether Battersea Power Station was on form; and determine how much electricity was being used to keep Adelina afloat and dry. There was even a warning bell that rang if the pump went out of action as a result of trying, say, to remove a lump of coal thrown in the bilges by one of the smaller occupants. In walking into that cabin to have a look at one or other of the devices in it, care had to be exercised.
For a couple of years we owned Tommy, a gifted tortoise. Tommy realised quite early in his stay aboard that though food might appear regularly, liquid refreshment tended to be forgotten. He was able to smell the presence of water in the bilges (not that a particularly sensitive nostril was needed for that) and taught himself to open the cabin door. The first time he went foraging we thought the ghost of a former owner was trying to tell us something, as apparently without any human agency the door kept opening slightly and closing again. Tommy became quite adept at getting in and out and even when a saucer of water was put out for him, preferred to go and procure his own water supplies. (My father probably trained him).
In wintertime the coal stove really came into its own. Various fuels had been tried; coal was best (of course) but gave a lot of smoke and quickly sooted up the flues. Coke didn't stay in overnight and wood, as well as being scarce, hardly lasted ten minutes at a loading. We were saved from freezing in winter by the fortuitous teething problems of a National Coal Board plant making smokeless fuels.
For years the NCB had been pursuing an idea for the manufacture of smokeless briquettes, using a process encouraged by the late Dr. Jacob Bronowski. In deference to the good doctor's nickname the products were known for a time as Brunobrights. The whole venture was costly, but vigorously developed as part of the campaign to make Britain pollution free, yet still give the householder his traditional open fire.
A pilot plant to make the briquettes was built, the completed fuel emerging as from a giant sausage machine. Periodically the machine would fail to put a big enough "kink" in the long tube of coal, giving rise to extra large lumps that were declared substandard. To recoup some of the cost of the project, these were sold to NCB staff members at slightly reduced rates, and having tried a bag on Adelina's stove — as the
adverts say, "we used no other". This account is not intended to be a puff for the National Coal Board; but that fuel, whatever the cost may have been, was superb.
Burning charbriquettes, as they were properly known, kept us warm and snug through the long Basingstoke winters; heated the water steadily rather than giving us a geyser one minute and tepid uselessness the next; and even cut the cooking time of a chicken to less than 12 hours. As an NCB employee, aware of increasing exasperation with the foibles of the sausage machine, I hoped the plant would get going properly as soon as possible.
As the occupant of Adelina, aware that properly prepared briquettes only went out on market surveys that didn't include houseboats, I longed for just enough lapses from rectitude for our needs to be supplied. That is virtually what happened, and the cheery warmth of Adelina, when all around was chill and frost, gave added joy to climbing up the gangplank every evening.
The life afloat was good: there is nothing to beat even an icebound boat for cosiness, when the living heart is a roaring fire (preferably roaring within the stove), which not only sends hot water singing round the heating pipes, but has a kettle simmering for tea and a few chestnuts on the hob. The scene was a far cry from the oil-can stove murkiness of Erewash days. Adelina had arrived at her Pickwickian vision: she was almost Dingley Dell on ice.