Watts Afloat?

Adventures on (and off) a narrowboat

By Anna Watts

We had a couple of holidays on narrow boats when the children were young and so knew we enjoyed life afloat. But it was quite out of the blue that after Alan retired we bought our own narrow boat. We were walking with the family close to Strensham Lock on the River Avon. Volunteers were manning the lock over the weekend and were selling odds and ends to raise money for the river's upkeep. Alan bought a couple of copies of a magazine called Waterways World and, once home again, sat and read them thoroughly. He was hooked. You would have thought they were travel brochures. He informed me that if we had a boat we could travel to such exotic places as Birmingham, Manchester and even Blackburn.

The magazines had advertisements for boats, with pictures and prices. After some discussion (not much) we decided that we could afford a reasonably sized boat at the lower end of the second-hand market. We set a ceiling price and a list of our approximate requirements and the search was on. Over the next few weeks we visited several marinas and saw many boats. After about a month of searching we came across a boat matching our requirements. She was called Willow. We had her surveyed and, after a few obvious defects were put right, we proudly navigated her to Evesham, about 15 minutes drive from home. On the way, Alan decided to rename her Platypus despite my dire warnings that this would be unlucky.

We started the TLC by having all the old paint removed and painting the outside. Then we slowly worked on getting the inside reasonable, in between trips on the Avon with family and friends. Alan and I are no great shakes at DIY but we are good at make-do and mend and we had great fun taking her out on trips and showing her off. I started to teach myself to paint the traditional Roses and Castles associated withnarrow boats and painted up some flower tubs for the roof.

The following summer we decided to do the Kennett and Avon Canal joining it at Reading after a long cruise taking in the Stratford Avon, the southern end of the Stratford Canal, part of the Grand Union Canal, the South Oxford Canal and a short stretch of the Thames. We then went all the way through to Port of Bristol (Alan's home town) via Bath.

On our way back we were to discover some of the hidden costs of buying a second hand boat. We had got as far as the Oxford Canal when the engine started using (or losing) a lot of oil. We stopped at a marina at Upper Heyford for help and advice. We discovered we needed a new engine, the mechanic being surprised we had got as far as we had. This was a bit of a shock and we would not be able to cruise for about a week, so our family fetched us home.
We had promised to lend her to friends for a fortnight, and fortunately they were able to slide this back by a week, so all was well. Whilst on the boat one of them discovered a "spectral entity", strange noises being heard during the night. It turned out to be a family of mice, which must have boardedwhile she was in dry dock.

Our next enterprise was to live aboard Platypus the following year. We let our house for 6 months and kitted out the boat for the great adventure. We moved on board in March together with what seemed like half a houseful of possessions. We stayed in Evesham Marina for a few weeks making last minute refinements to the layout and equipment. Our planned six months of cruising started with a proving run to Gloucester and Sharpness. We set off at the beginning of April. The weather was cold and damp, but our spirits were high.

The Sharpness Canal is a lovely, tranquil canal with no locks, only frequent swing bridges, which are manned and swung for you. The original houses for the bridge keepers are still there. They are fronted by facades of porticos and grand columns, all very much out of place. The final two miles of the canal are spectacular with wide, sweeping views across the Severn Estuary and down toward the Severn Bridges.

On our way back to Gloucester the weather turned very wet. As we had no protection on the stern for the steerer, we moored up for a couple of days in Gloucester Basin. Our eventual trip up-river to Tewkesbury was somewhat nerve-wracking. We were battling against a receding tide caused by a high Severn Bore. We fought the river all the way, avoiding large tree trunks and other debris from the banks. At times we felt we were making no headway, as the current was so strong. Eventually and thankfully we reached Tewkesbury in very heavy showers.

We had planned to carry on up the Severn to Stourport but the Tewkesbury lock keeper advised us to go on the Avon as he felt the Severn would continue to rise and would soon be closed. The Avon was less likely to flood. Taking his advice, we made our way up the Avon towards Evesham. We stopped overnight at Pershore and then continued on to Bidford on Avon. As we pushed slowly upstream against the current the showers turned to heavy and continuous rain.

At the last lock before Bidford we noticed that warning notices about river conditions had been set. but rather than moor at an isolated lock far from a road we decided to press on the last half mile to Bidford. We were fighting the current all the way and I think I drank half a bottle of Scotch in that last half mile, as it became more and more difficult to make headway. Eventually, we reached the public moorings at Bidford and tied up with feelings of great relief.
The moorings consist of a concrete landing stage with large upright poles concreted in. each topped by a T-bar. A metal ring sits round the pole and mooring ropes are threaded through rings, which rise and fall with changes in river level. The 45 degree river bank rises 10 feet above the mooring and is climbed by concrete steps to a public recreation field dotted with large trees.
Bidford is a lovely place with pretty houses and a reasonable range of shops and a couple of riverside pubs. In the summer families picnic on the
Rec and watch cricket or the boats cruising by, but not in early April with the rain teeming down. We discussed the state of the river with the locals and the consensus was that it would be two days before the river would be navigable, so we stayed on board and waited. Throughout that first day I watched anxiously as the river continued to rise. After 12 hours we realised the river was not going down so we decided to spend a few days over Easter with our daughter and grandchildren in Cheltenham.

Alan went off to find a call box, as our mobile had no signal. It took him two hours of queuing to make the call as so many people stranded by the floods were trying to contact the emergency services. Back on the boat I was busy finishing off the other half of the whisky while anxiously watching the river level continue to rise. Getting a little agitated, I poked my head out to check the mooring only to find that the landing stage was no longer visible, being under several inches of water. As the water rose, the steps up the bank got further and further away from the boat.

As Alan was still away, like most women I screamed for help. Eventually a man in waders from another boat came to my rescue. He helped me scrabble from the boat and pull myself up the bank via overhanging tree branches. Kanga, our little Jack Russell, had literally to be thrown from the boat on to the riverbank. I had not been able to carry anything with me; it had been difficult enough getting myself safely off the boat.

I saw Alan coming across the Rec in the pouring rain, unable to understand why I was off the boat and getting soaked. As he came nearer he could see why but still asked me if I had locked up properly. In my panic I had not, so he insisted on struggling back on board to try to get a few things off and lock up. Tarzan-like he swung via branches on to the stern and, as I watched in horror, disappeared inside. He soon reappeared but had only a couple of cans of beer with him, obviously determined to retrieve the important things. I suppose it was lucky it wasn't anything valuable, as he had to abandon even the beer in his effort to get back to the bank.

We had only the clothes we were wearing and Alan's "handbag" which fortunately contained his wallet. My handbag was still on the boat. Eventually, we got a taxi to take us to our car in Evesham, virtually the last vehicle out of Bidford before it was completely cut off by floodwater. From Evesham we drove to Cheltenham with some difficulty owing to water on the road. We listened to local radio on the way to hear that both Evesham and Winchcombe were flooded and that Stratford was completely cut off.

We turned up at our daughter Amanda's house with just the clothes we stood up in and our dog, Kanga. We were not too worried, though, as we planned to pick things up from the boat the next day. "No worries," as the Aussies say. Imagine our son-in-law's face when he came home from work to find the mother-in-law had come to stay!

The following day, Good Friday, we awoke to a bright and breezy spring day. The grandchildren came in to bed with us for a cuddle. Alan got up early to go to see what he could get off the boat, while I read stories in bed with not a care in the world. After an hour and a half, still in bed with the children, I heard him return. I could hear him talking to Amanda downstairs. The words "She has gone" floated up and I could not think what he meant. We had left the boat securely moored. Had she been stolen? He walked into the room looking very pale. I asked him what he meant by "Gone." His reply sent me into floods of tears. The grandchildren thought Gran had gone totally mad. He said, "She is on the bottom of the river, totally submerged".

He had arrived at Bidford and was standing on the opposite bank to where the boat should have been when a gentleman next to him said he felt sorry for the owner whose boat was under water, at which Alan was somewhat relieved as he had thought the boat might have broken from its mooring and drifted down stream and over the weir. This would have meant we had lost everything.
As I said before, the boat had been tied to iron rings, which were free to rise and fall on mooring posts as the river changed levels. The rings were prevented from coming off the top of the posts by a T-bar. The posts were about 5 feet high, enough to cope with the worst floods in living memory, up until now! When the river reached 10 feet above its normal level the ring hit the T-bar and the boat could rise no further. The river continued rising, the boat didn't.

We discovered later from someone watching from their bedroom window that an abandoned hire boat sharing our stern ring on very short ropes went down first and dragged our engine vents under water so that the engine compartment slowly filled and we sank about midnight. As the river rose several more feet we would probably have gone down eventually, without the aid of the boat behind us. By the time Alan saw all this the river, which had risen to almost 18 feet, was indistinguishable from the surrounding fields, with the water spreading for more than a mile from its banks. Even the trees I had used to swing off the boat had disappeared.

We tried to pull ourselves together and after a lot of tears from me we tried to contact our insurers. In vain. It was a bank holiday. In fact, they didn't answer our calls for five days. You know what they say about insurance companies, they are quick enough to collect their premiums, but slow to pay out when you need them.

Our next priority was a clean set of underwear so into Cheltenham we drove. It was dry but windy and as I left the car, the door slammed on my finger and Alan had to take me to casualty. So with finger strapped but wearing clean underwear, we visited our old mooring at Evesham marina. It no longer looked like a marina. All the moorings had disappeared, and boats were tied to the railway bridge across the river and anything else that might be immovable in the water. A boat upstream had been swept from its mooring and floated sideways down the river for three miles, over a weir and had come to rest jammed against Workman Bridge in Evesham.

We made our way back to Amanda and Co. She had been trying to contact us. On a tray in the lounge was a bottle of scotch and two glasses. She sat us down with a glass in our hands and told us she had some bad news. While we were out our house agent had phoned to say that the ground floor of our house in Sedgeberrow had been flooded. The Isbourne runs behind us and had backed up as the Avon flooded, and had overflowed its banks, flowing across our back garden and through the house to join the torrent that used to be our main road.

Our tenants had quickly moved upstairs and, looking out of the front bedroom window, were surprised to see a caravan turn off the Hooded road and up the drive. The driver had panicked on seeing the ever-deepening torrent on the road and had headed for the nearest high ground, which happened to be our drive. Our tenants made them welcome and they stayed there for several days, dispensing hot drinks to most of the nearby residents who had no power - the caravan was equipped with a plentiful supply of bottled gas.   We had another insurance claim to negotiate!

After a week or so. Rather than overstay our welcome, we moved in with daughter number two and her partner and a few days after that the Avon had subsided sufficiently for us to contemplate raising Platypus from the depths as her roof had appeared above water at last. Alan donned his wet suit and clambered aboard. After sealing as many windows and ventilators as he could reach, powerful pumps were started and slowly, almost imperceptibly at times. Platypus started to rise. The weather deteriorated during the process and we were hit by snow, sleet and hailstones as the river gave up its prize. Eventually, 12 days after she sank, she was floating again.

We towed Platypus across the river to the nearby boatyard and examinedthe devastation. Our gangplank, which had been swept from the roof, was found half a mile away, stopped from floating further by a hedge. The boat was filled with mud and there were dead fish and frogs in the engine compartment. Granddaughter Amy asked what it was like and I told her a bit like the toilet when you have an upset tummy! One strange sight was what looked like a multi-tiered chocolate cake. It was our crockery, neatly stacked according to size, largest plates at the bottom and smallest at the top. All the books we had expected to read on our six month trip were ruined as was all electrical equipment. Our clothes and linen lay around in brown soggy heaps. Perhaps the saddest loss was Alan's old family photographs, on board to be sorted and labeled.

It took us almost a week to remove this mess, helped by some of our dearest friends. As the insurance company would not let us ditch anything unless we photographed it first, much of it was stored, still covered in mud, in various garages pending examination by the loss adjuster. They say things come in threes, and I soon had my third disaster after the sinking and smashing my finger in the car door. House sitting for friends. I was cleaning the contents of a toolbox and cut my finger on a Stanley knife. Back I went to casualty for more strapping. Within days I had my third visit to casualty as Kanga accidentally bit my hand as I played with her. Another finger strapped up and a series of anti-tetanus injections.

We continued house sitting for people but eventually had to find something more permanent. Our tenants could not find another short-term let so decided to stay on in our damp house while it dried out. At least they had a roof over their heads.

We were still working on the various insurance claims, none of which were simple. The boatyard managed to clean up the engine and get it running after replacing all the electrics. The insurance company decided the boat was a write-off so we bought her back from them and navigated her down to Tewkesbury and then up the Severn to Upton for a complete refit in the marina there. Our temporary home was now a small caravan in which we lived for 6 months, close to where the boat was being refitted. This enabled us to see the boat and help with the refit.

Our tenants eventually left the house and we had the assessors in to check the damage. The ground floor needed to be completely gutted, even to taking the plaster off the walls. They also needed to run industrial dehumidifiers for some time to dry things out. This was going to take a while and the work on the boat was slower than we had hoped. The caravan park was closing for the winter so we decided it was time to go away for a while, hoping that when we returned either the boat or the house would be finished.

We went to Australia and stayed with relatives for eight weeks, stopping off en route for a short stay in China.

Despite our long holiday neither the boat nor the house were finished when we eventually returned. We moved onto a half finished boat with carpenters, plumbers and electricians milling around all day. As the house was not finished we moored in Upton Marina for the winter and lived on the boat. The house was not ready to move into until spring, almost a year to the day from the original great flood.

All this happened over four years ago and we have since moved house. We now live in a Park Home on a residential site under the Malvern Hills. It is lovely, way out in the country with magnificent views of the hills. We would be delighted to talk to anyone else considering this life-style, a good way of releasing capital tied up in bricks and mortar.

Platypus is now moored at Diglis Basin in Worcester, about 30 minutes away by car. Since the refurbishment we have had some good cruising on her. This year between July and September we covered 600 miles of waterway, traversing almost 300 locks and getting as far as Leeds on the Leeds and Liverpool Canal and Chester on the Shropshire Union. We couldn't get to Liverpool as the canal was breached and out of water!

We now also own a large camper van and spent some time earlier in the year exploring Brittany and the foothills of the Pyrenees. We hope to explore more of the continent early next year. Kanga now has her passport and will
be able to travel with us. Perhaps I shall write an article next year about our camper van adventures, although with 2000 (and increasing) miles of inland waterways to explore it may be difficult to devote much time to foreign travel!

If anyone would like to talk to Anna and Alan about anything mentioned in this article, they invite you to call them on 01684 833 889.

This page was added by Iris Capps on 15/01/2010.
Comments about this page

I am not sure what you can say - because it sounds like continuing disaster, but I know you have fun and enjoy life on the boat. Thanks for letting us into your story.

By Jan Thomas
On 19/01/2010

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