A few weeks ago, Lady Barton St Mary informed me that we would be spending a weekend on a boat with The Sexton and Pen.
As some of you already know, boat holidays are not unfamiliar to me. Only a couple of years ago, we had spent a week on a boat on The Norfolk Broads, organised by Gerald, my old fag from school and his wife, Sarah (who won’t use her title for political reasons). Sarah saw it as an opportunity to spread the word of Marxist, socialist, feminist, vegetarian extremism to the inhabitants of Norfolk, through the medium of loudhailer. Gerald saw it as an opportunity to commandeer the master bedroom with en suite bathroom and turn the entire vessel into a gin palace. The Sexton and I tolerated this, taking comfort in being able to take a poop in Gerald’s en suite whenever we could; with the volume of food provided by Pen, this opportunity was often more than once a day. We had to spend most of the time on the main vessel, although for a brief period of time The Sexton staged a demonstration by occupying the dinghy, in a protest against Gerald’s strict rationing of one chocolate Brazil nut per day.
But this time we were on a narrowboat,travelling on The Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal, which runs through softly undulating West Midlands countryside, according to the Canal and River Trust website. Also, we would be joined by Steeley the Tinkers’ Friend and his wife She-La!, who’d had minor chart success as a singer in the 1980s.
Now, The Sexton, Pen, Lady BSM and I already had extensive narrowboat experience in the 1980s, just around the time She-La! was warbling ‘Touch Me (But Not There), when we were ‘young and stupid’, according to The Sexton.
That particular trip was taken with Mad Kev and his first wife, Jane. Mad Kev was self-appointed tiller man. He would think nothing of starting the boat at 6 am, ripping up the Birmingham Canal system as fast as he could. He’d reach terrifying speeds in canal terms (12mph), dragging anglers and their keep nets into the water in his wake. Mad Kev showed that it was possible to overtake another narrowboat even if another one was coming in the opposite direction. We watched on, helpless, as a father desperately clung on to his wife and young children in a small inflatable dinghy as Mad Kev hurtled past, causing huge waves.
One day, I witnessed a real life slapstick comedy moment. As Mad Kev propelled the craft through the water, The Sexton and I were aware of a fast approaching marina. A man, carefully seated in a rowboat, was concentrating hard on painting a perfectly straight line on the side of his boat, unaware of Mad Kev looming up behind him. The Sexton and I waved furiously at Mad Kev, to no avail, then tried shouting a warning to the man with the paint brush, absorbed in his work. The inevitable happened. The expression of the poor boat decorator as he was launched into the air, painting a rather accurate right angle on the boat, will always be with me. The man wailed plaintively, before launching a volley of abuse; Mad Kev looked straight ahead, merely giving his latest victim the two finger salute.
Jane provided us with another of our often told stories on that trip, known as the ‘Jane’s Hot T-Shirt Story’. One very hot day, Jane, after several glasses of wine, was chattering away to The Sexton and I. We sat opposite her at the small dining table. Jane, suddenly exclaiming how hot and sweaty she felt, lifted her t-shirt to wipe her brow. At this point, we discovered that Jane was not wearing a bra. The Sexton and I exchanged glances. A few minutes passed. Jane repeated the action.
“What’s wrong?” she enquired this time, looking at the expression on our faces, “is there something on my face?”
The Sexton gave a polite smile and pointed to his temple. Following his lead, Jane lifted her shirt once more to give her forehead a good rub. She stopped suddenly, holding the shirt against her face for a few moments, aware of her faux pas. She slowly pulled down her shirt and stared balefully at both of us.
“Oh shit. I’ll never hear the last of this,” she sighed. She was wrong. It would be us and our old friends who would have to endure the constant re-telling.
But now we were older. No Mad Kev to get us around both Birmingham Rings in a week, showing us how to save time by ramming lock gates to release several tons of water on our heads.
We arrived on the Friday, with provisions, as requested by Pen. We needed enough food and drink to last us the weekend, Pen insisted. This meant that by the time we’d loaded food into the car, there was very little room for luggage. Or passengers. By the time all the food and drink had been loaded onto the boat, it appeared to have sunk an extra four inches into the murky canal water.
We set off for an hour. Then it was time for tea, eaten on the towpath: cheeses, cold meats, hot chicken, salad, crisps, ham, beef, French bread, sliced bread, cakes, biscuits, crackers, twiglets, chocolate… a veritable feast. As were we, since the insects took the opportunity to eat us alive. For the rest of the weekend, we looked like a boat load of chicken pox victims.
The sleeping arrangements: Back in the 80s, we had some form of bunk bed affair. I’d ended up on the bottom bunk and being claustrophobic, had woken up in the middle of the night convinced that I’d been buried alive.
This time, there were two double beds in a line, frequented by The Sexton, Pen, Lady BSM and me, with Steeley and She-La! slightly aft of us in the loosely described master bedroom. You have to get on well to survive these conditions.
When I say conditions, I mean being woken at 3 in the morning as The Sexton unleashes an almighty cough, followed by a fart that sounds like a particularly intricate solo part for a bugler at The Trooping of the Colour. Combine this with Lady Barton St Mary’s trademark ‘broken lilo snoring’ , Sleep seemed a distant memory.
At breakfast the following morning, The Sexton continued to cough and splutter, occasionally using one of his inhalers to soothe his asthma and hayfever. Steeley observed him carefully.
“You’re not really cut out for the outdoor life, are you?” Steeley said.
“Not really,” agreed The Sexton, a former dairy farmer, “but I can’t use a computer keyboard,” he explained, holding up his fingers, which are like perfectly cooked pork sausages.
The canal was a delight. The Sexton took over the Mad Kev role without the mad bit, whilst the rest of us worked the locks, of which there were many. Steeley loves this sort of responsibility, running ahead like an enthusiastic Labrador, opening and closing as many lock gates as he can. If he could, he would have done all of it, so, as a good friend, I often let him.
Saturday was a triumph for Pen. She managed to locate a good Indian restaurant in the local town of Wombourne. What’s more, she was confident in booking a taxi to take us there.
“Can you pick us up from Bridge 53? We’re from the canal!” she explained on her mobile phone. After several attempts, as taxi firm after taxi firm hung up on the loony canal woman, she finally succeeded. Although Pen insisted on calling the town Womblebury.
Eventually, she got it right.
“Wombourne!” she exclaimed.
“Every minute!” shouted The Sexton, initiating a whole evening of “Wombourne every minute” tourette’s.
I had been hoping to watch the World Cup 3rd place play off game on the TV, but the wives said it would be nicer to have a meal out. Imagine their dismay as we were shown to our table, underneath a 50 inch screen showing Arjen Robben cheating and Brazil fans crying, all in glorious high definition. The womenfolk were very tolerant, helped by a magnificent curry.
The taxi ride back proved to be a little harder to organise. The efficient woman had finished her shift to be replaced by a late night numpty, sending one taxi for four, leaving Steeley and I to wait for another one. By 11.30, Wombourne (every minute) was deserted. A car’s headlights approached and we watched as the taxi slowed and stopped. Steeley walked over to converse with the driver.
“What’s the name?” asked the driver. We mentioned The Sexton’s.
We tried mine.
Steeley’s attitude changed.
“Look. Mate. We’re in a deserted street. Next to a cricket pitch. We’ve ordered a taxi. You’re driving a taxi. Who the fuck else is waiting for a taxi?”
“Pen,” I said.
The driver looked at me.
“Why didn’t you say that in the first place?”
The following day we went back through all of the locks from the previous day. It hammered down with rain, but we didn’t mind that much, sending Steeley out into the wet conditions. Overall, we travelled 10 miles in a weekend.
On the journey home, Lady BSM mentioned how narrowboat holidays were good, because you had to relax, but also had work to do when going through a lock. I have to agree, canal boat trips are chilled. As long as Mad Kev isn’t the tiller man.