I recently wrote about my mother’s wartime rowing holiday on the Thames, with extracts from the journal she and her friend kept at the time, “The log of the 109″. Pictured above is another log book from the archives – well, a W.H. Smith exercise book with a hole cut in the cover, revealing the postcard of a canal boat stuck on the first page:
This is the “Log of the B4F”, the B4F being a “Falcon class, steel, narrow boat type, diesel engined craft” aboard which my family spent an idyllic week in the summer of 1973. This holiday was chosen for a combination of reasons. Three years earlier we had enjoyed a wonderful trip around Ireland in a horse-drawn caravan, indulging my childhood passion for horses. Brother 1 was similarly passionate about boats, and as we were hosting his French exchange student, Claude, at the time, my parents decided a canal boat holiday would be an ideal way to give my brother a boating holiday and introduce Claude to the English countryside. So the 6 of us cast off from Kidlington along the Oxford Canal, after just a couple of hours’ instruction in “steermanship and engine control”, on August 18th, for a week of the most tranquil adventures.
Most of the log’s narrative is written by my Dad, with detailed entries added by Brother 1 concerning nautical miles travelled, degrees north, etc. My brother’s nautical enthusiasm is also evident in this detailed diagram he made of the vessel:
It seems I kept my own log book of this trip, written in fountain pen in the vivid green ink I favoured at the time; these extra pages have been inserted into the logbook. I was 11, so I am not at all surprised to find that my log is mostly concerned with the different animals and birds that we see on our gentle journey: water voles (at least one a day), herons, moorhens, swans, rabbits, cows, bats. Dad’s words (written, eloquently as ever, in the third person) give a far more vivid picture of our trip – so take it away, Dad:
“Dad very uncertainly steered our craft on the real beginning of our voyage. Very slowly the banks slipped by. The canal is very old, and is constructed round the natural contours of the countryside which makes for many bends, changes of scenery & difficult navigation.
By degrees Dad, [Brothers 1 and 2], & Claude mastered the control of the craft and we purred on to our first lock, which we negotiated successfully.
For part of the way we were accompanied by a heron and no doubt we shall observe much of the real quiet English countryside on this trip”.
That certainly proves to be the case, although we encounter some difficulties on our first day (“Catastrophe!” according to the green-ink version): the throttle cable breaks, so we have little speed and no reverse. Mum walks miles to find a telephone and call the hire company, and my engineer Dad expresses his frustration at the situation: “With tools we could do our own repair”. So we moor for the night at Pigeon’s Lock where we read aloud from Jerome K. Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat before settling down in our cosy bunks. (We read from this classic every night on this holiday, a very happy memory).
The following day Dad waits for the repairs whilst the rest of us go on a walk to Blenheim Palace, which we can’t get into as we had spent our money on refreshments, but a kind gatekeeper lets us in to the grounds for just 10p. [I remember this: my Mum was disappointed as she had worked for the Red Cross with the Duchess of Marlborough during the war]. Repairs effected, we continue with our tranquil journey. The following day, having passed through Somerton Deep lock, dad writes:
“A naval vessel, no less, came over the horizon & passed us – HMS Sheffield, followed by a Polaris submarine – somewhat off course, we thought, but they could have been specially made models.” This is intriguing, as the HMS Sheffield was sunk by an Exocet missile during the Falklands conflict in 1982.
We each take turns at steering our craft; Dad refers to us all as “the crew”. We meander gently through the countryside, mooring occasionally to walk to places of interest or shops; the town of Banbury provides both the famous cakes and the “Banbury Cross” of nursery rhyme fame. August 22nd brings another incident, and more locks; Dad describes both, beautifully, here:
“We sailed on, much troubled by the wind, which continually pushed us off course. We had an incident. With [Brother 2] steering & Dad at the speed control we approached one bridge too fast. Eleanor’s efforts to fend off was unavailing & Dad was late with the reverse. We hit – there was chaos in the galley – milk poured out of the fridge, 2 cups & 1 plate went west – [Brother 1] deserves mention in the log for bracing himself in time & saving 2 cups.
A delay followed to clear up the mess.
At Napton Top Lock we began our descent, and dropped down 9 locks in all. Our jobs varied, & here the process will be described, going down.
The boat approaches the lock which we will presume is closed against us. The bow touches the bank, bow-rope-man & stern-rope-man jump ashore to hold the boat, followed by the windlass man waving his instrument & running to the gate. If another boat is coming out, we have to wait. If not, & the lock is full, he applies his bottom to the great lever (balance beam) & pushes the gate open, permitting the boat to enter. If the lock has been emptied by the previous boat going out, the windlass man winds up the ‘paddles’ in the nearest, or upper gate, which allows the water in to fill.
With the boat manoeuvred in to the full lock, the paddles are wound down into place, & the gate closed by bottom power.
The paddles in the other gate are then opened, & the water sluices out, the boat descends impressively as in a pantomime, the crew controlling its position with ropes, & side-hung chains, or by hand against the slimy walls. This spectacle attracts every idler within miles.
The bottom level being reached, the gates are opened to permit the exit of the boat, on which gates & paddles are closed, by rule – the odd crew member is picked up & on we go.
Weather steadily improved & the wind died down. Immense vistas of green pastures floated past, inhabited by curious (i.e. full of curiosity) cows, & the odd vole swimming across.”
The following day we leave the Oxford Canal to join the Grand Union, and experience the excitement of the infamous Braunston Tunnel:
“the Tunnel is wide enough for 2 boats abreast, & high enough for standing. We donned our waterproofs just in case (& there were some drips). It was eerie though, the dark walls gliding by, the headlamp reflecting back, & a boat behind us shining mysteriously in the distance. We passed under 2 ventilation shafts, and the ‘S’ bend (made necessary by the constructing contractor’s error). All except Dad had a turn at the tiller. Eventually the exit appeared in the distance & slowly enlarged visually till we emerged into the sunlight.”
That evening Dad has captured the tranquillity of the scene with one of his biro sketches:
On our last day, we kids enjoy a dip in the canal. I have made a new friend, Claire Byers, who has a pony (!) and with whom I will keep up a brief correspondence that will peter out, as all my pen-friendships did, before very long. My brother’s friend Claude seems to have enjoyed his holiday, entering into the spirit of everything even when he falls into the water fully clothed and is “rescued” by myself. As I have written that day, in my green ink:
“This has been a wonderful holiday and we are all sad it is over (sniff sniff).”
It really was, and I can still remember it vividly today, 40 years later. Some of these memories have been preserved by the cine film that my parents took of each of our holidays. I recently watched this one again on DVD and the silent footage emphasised the peacefulness of this languid, tranquil journey. It was a very special thing that our parents did for us all, giving us an experience that we will never forget. I can’t speak for Claude, however, as he and my brother lost touch after he returned to France. Claude went on to be a chef; I can only wonder what he must have thought of the English food he endured as a 16 year old, that summer of 1973!
As for my nautical enthusiast brother: two years after this trip, he went to Newcastle University to study naval architecture. He has since enjoyed a successful career designing oil rigs, and is only now pursuing his dream of qualifying as a ship’s captain. Good luck, Brother 1!