Wednesday 11 September 2013

A Long Weekend in the UK

I am safely home from my adventures in the UK. I enjoyed myself and had a great time. First stop was to head for Hastings and the Pud Lady who, at 86, is still very well and zipping about the house on the wheelie zimmer cracking out superb suppers for returning sons and beating them soundly at Scrabble. The latter mainly by flexing the rules as required, like when Ovaltine will fit across a treble word. Ovaltine is now not an actual brand name, by the way, but more like the word 'hoover' which have gone into 86-year-old "standard terminology" meaning any malted night time drink in general...... it says here. Mum is always right, as you know. We had a great time swapping news and catching up on things, later joined by elder brother, Tom and gossiping late into the evening. I stayed around for the following morning too, departing after lunch.

From Hastings off up into Kent, seeking out 2CV Llew who, as well as having a spare carburettor for my 2CV, also wanted to take me for a drive in his restored Citroën 'Light 15' (Traction Avant) of which he is rightly proud. This is a lovely car, the car of choice for Hercules Poirot in the TV programmes where Hercules was played by David Suchet, of whom more later. It has grey leather seats and wooden paneling on the dash etc. It is 5 years older than me, being built in 1952 and sounds as sweet as a nut.

Our route took us from Herne Bay, out by Reculver then through Grove Ferry and Preston (near Canterbury) to Llew's workshop, so we were bowling along country lanes with the long nose pulling us round the corners and Llew occasionally greeting people with the Mr Toad style klaxon horn, Parp parp!

Diamond and John. 1st Anniversary bouquet.
From there back to Faversham and Diamond's for supper and an overnight, which none of us copped when we set it up, meant I'd be there 'gate crashing' Diamond and John's 1st Wedding Anniversary. Never mind - we all coped and Diamond laid on a lovely supper of chicken, ham and mushroom pie followed by her speciality home made lemon ice cream. A lovely comfortable bed too and bacon rolls for breakfast. I took John down to his almost-complete, restored town house down in town to admire the lovely new woodwork, windows and fittings. It is going to be gorgeous when it is all finished and they can move in.

Time then to return the rental car to Gatwick Airport and find my way through the Gatwick Express to Victoria Station and then via Circle line to Tower Hill and thence to St Katharine's Dock where 'our' sailing barge, SB Cambria was to go on static display as part of the Classic Boat Festival, part of the Mayor's Thames River Festival. I am a bit of a country bumpkin and these trips into the big smoke are always scary adventures for me. They say, though, if you want to know the way, ask a policeman and there were hundreds of them about because they had just broken up a National Defence League march trying to recreate a Moseley Black-shirts demo. Which way to St Kat's, Officer? They were queuing up to help me!

The barge was only just 'locked in' to St Kat's and had been moored up by the crew from Sea Change Sailing Trust, who use it for sail training charters ("Making a real impact on the lives of disabled, disadvantaged and socially excluded young people and vulnerable adults") . That crew (Skipper Richard, First Mate Hilary and 3rd Hand, 'Stretch') had handed their youthful charges over to their land-based responsible adults, tidied up the barge and handed the 'keys' to our 'Boss of Volunteers', Basil B. We had to get on board, fine-tune the tidying and ready the boat for a likely onslaught of visitors - this was a sunny Saturday, yards from the Tower of London and Tower Bridge and we had a bloomin' great 'advert' up in the form of our huge red-ochre topsail with its Rotary Club logo, glowing in the sunshine, 75 feet up! We were expecting 'busy'.

We weren't wrong. The public started arriving way before we were ready and kept on coming - queues and queues of them non-stop from mid morning till we could start to close the 'shop' with relief at 6pm. We were a bit disorganised  and short staffed and did not get our 'clicker' head-count thingy out, so we can only estimate but it was definitely a record, and might have been as many as 900 or 1000 but they all got a proper show round, a chance to photo themselves by the ship's wheel, for the kids to try out a hammock and to see the (107 year) old restored Captain's Cabin aft, and the "new yachty bit" (accommodation) for'd. We talked them through the history of the barge and the restoration and present use as both the 'Sea Change' boat, but also the Rotary-sponsored Respite-for-Young-Carers role. We encouraged them to drop a few quid in our box, write a comment in the Visitors' Book, and buy books, pens, book marks etc from the shop.

We were so busy that a number of pots of tea were made but then went cold and stewed where nobody had time to stop for a cup, and most of us had abandoned mugs of cold coffee or tea 'parked' around various bits of barge. At one stage I was bounced by a lady from a local radio station who asked me to give her a potted version of my spiel in 3 minutes into the microphone. I did OK, managed it without stumbling and she said she liked my 'rich' voice, but I have no idea which radio station I was on (West of London Radio?) or whether it was ever transmitted. It was meant to be going out on the Monday.

It was mad, too, on the Sunday but by then we'd been joined by 2 more staff so we were able to properly man the gangway and count people on board, as well as controlling the flow a bit. We know that we had 919 souls that day and sometimes 48-50 on board at once. It was thick and fast again but great fun. After 6:30 pm each evening the boat was ours and we could relax and recover. The marina had set up with the marina-side eateries, for boat 'owners' to get discounts, so we ate in a lovely Italian (20% off) on two of the nights and a Wetherspoon's on another night. The marina also has a lovely office building with showers and loos for the berth-holders and a restaurant upstairs

The Monday was a whole different kettle of fish. It lashed with rain and it was, anyway, a Monday, so all the kids were back at school and grown-ups back at work, so we had a big fat zero visitors before lunch and only 6 all day. They got luxury treatment, of course, but we were able to 'lay off' three of our staff mid afternoon to let them get home prior to the rush hour. We watched old barge videos and kipped in the hammock. At one stage, Cambria Trust Patron, David Suchet (yes - he of the Poirot role) phoned the barge. It turns out he has a flat at St Kat's, overlooking our berth so we all rushed out onto the deck to wave at him up at his window. We could hear his wife in the background telling him not to be so silly!

Then it was Tuesday and I was done, with my flight home from Gatwick to Knock leaving at 12:50. I helped with the breakfast washing up, stripped my bunk and packed. I bade them all farewell (they are there till next Sunday, 15th) and trundled my wheelie-case back along the pontoons to Tower Hill underground. No sooner was my back turned, apparently than rock legend Rod Stewart and wife Penny Lancaster showed up and had a look round, as well as nicely allowing 'us' to photograph them on board etc for our own Facebook stuff.

But now it's all over, and we have come to the end of this year's planned visits out, or in and we are on the comfortable chill-out into autumn. It's been a blast.

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