Tuesday 16 September 2014

Planes, Trains and Automobiles......

The house in Hastings where I grew up.
"Just write about what you did in your holidays" - that clichéd old instruction in English Composition classes at school when you were first back from the summer break. Once a year I get the urge to 'go home' (all be it 'home' now feels very much like here, rather than Hastings or Kent), to catch up with Pud Lady (now 87) and my brother, Tom, to drop in on Kent friends and, of course, to get a fix of the 'Thames Sailing Barge' drug. I do all these in one trip, leaving poor Liz in charge of all the livestock. She asks for a check list in case she misses anyone, and gets handed one running to 4 pages of a note book this time (!). She tells me she loves it for a couple of days but by night-5 she is missing her lay-ins and cups of first-thing-in-the-morning tea and she is happy to hand the gang back,

Pud Lady cooks up the next cheating
devious manouvre in scrabble!
In these days of cheap flights it is all reasonably priced and we are delighted to be only 25 minutes drive down country lanes from Knock Airport. We both remember with horror those traffic-clogged trudges to Gatwick (and hour and a half each way on a good day) and some nightmare runs all the way round the M25 to Heathrow (2 hours if you were very lucky). I fly Aer Lingus to Gatwick, hire a small car (VW Polo this time), and trundle down to Kent always in awe of how many cars there are about; I am used to my quiet roads of the 'Wesht' by now. This time I dropped in on former neighbours, the 'Angel Betty' and Jim for a lovely chat and a coffee, then headed for Diamond's with John for supper, a visit from Mazy and a comfortable night's sleep.

Sailing Barge Cambria at night in St Katharine Docks
Thursday saw me down in Hastings catching up with Pud Lady and Tom, helping with and then sharing lunch and then being beaten badly by PL at Scrabble. She will read this, of course, so I can't be too rude, but we do have a good laugh with the Scrabble because she is always dreaming up devious cheating manouvres which she tells me are allowed when you are over 85 years old. There is a rule somewhere, apparently. You can write words upwards, diagonally or even detached from the rest of the grid, plus you can use shamelessly foreign words like "quinze" (15) or initials like 'TT' (tee-total) if it means you can lay your cunning word alongside an existing one in order to put your 'X' or 'Z' on a triple word. Who am I to argue? Just the obedient son........ To be fair in her defence, I should add that she also got lots of genuine and very clever, high scoring words without breaking any rules, 'Friezes' for example across a treble letter, completing 2 other sizable words into the bargain.

Those famous poppies at the Tower of London
From Hastings, back to Diamond's via Mazy's near Faversham for another lovely chat and to collect a cake and a jar of tomato chutney for the barge folk. John and I bought fish and chips (Ahhh the nostalgia) from our old favourite outlet, the Park Fish Bar in Faversham. Diamond is, as regular readers will know, not at all well and did not feel up to the fishy feast but she enjoyed us enjoying it. Local pub, The Elephant also operates a draught beer take-away service, where you can buy 2 pints of any of their guest draughts in a 'Tetra-pack' style container to bring home. We chose the mild Kent stout 'Canterbury Ale' and the paler (Rother Valley Brewery) 'Boadicea', both excellent.

Boozy reception and boaters' prize giving on board Cambria
And so to London to hand back the car at Gatwick and find my way through to St Katharine Docks to "join my ship". This was the Sailing Barge Cambria which was in town as part of Boris Johnson's "Totally Thames" festival and St Kat's "Classic Boat Weekend". Cambria is always a big attraction at such things - she is huge and tall so she can be seen for miles, she is free to enter (donations welcome!) and because she has no engine or terribly 'dangerous bits', parents and kids can come on board and go pretty much anywhere, up and down the three companionways.

Raffle prize - a nice jeroboam of red in
a hand painted bottle.
We make sure there are plenty of volunteers about to act as guides, to man the boarding stairs, to work the shop and, this year, the teas, coffees and cakes. I love to do the guiding and I am told that I have a natural gift of the gab (Blarney?) and often get a rapt group of listeners as I waffle on about 170 tonnes of cargo, 11 inches of free board amidships, lee boards and sprit-sail rigs. We opened the barge on Friday afternoon, plus all of Saturday (where we saw a record 1705 souls come through and hosted a gang of shanty singers who wanted to raise money on our behalf by passing round the bucket used for sluicing down our deck) and on Sunday till 4 pm (1125 people). We were exhausted, aching of foot from standing up all day and sore of throat from speechifying.

Former Mate on Cambria (in trade), Dick Durham (left)
judges and presents the champagne prizes. 
At 4 we closed the shop and became Reception Venue of for a fun and lighthearted prize giving for the boat owners at the festival (71 more people!). There were all manner of daft categories as well as the 'best dressed' (with bunting) award - fizz went to the best fairy lights, a 'travelling light' award to a Belgian guy who had left his clothes behind, to a bizarre combination of best dog and deck furniture, and to the 'spirit of the Festival', a guy who found some lost jewelry in the Marina washrooms and managed to return it to its owner. It was all a bit mad and great fun. Judging, invention of categories and prize giving were done by friend and former in-trade Mate of the barge, Dick Durham, now a writer for Yachting Monthly magazine.

St Kat's Marina is now all 'done up' and renovated as chi-chi posh apartments, cafés and restaurants and the Marina had arranged for boat owners to get a discount card, so we ate in the evenings, in those eateries, sipping our house red and watching the marina's comings and goings and the beautiful lights on the craft, reflected in the water. They were all warm, sunny days and balmy evenings; we were very lucky with the weather.

Mapp and Lucia kill a blown cabbage
My journey home was going to be another 'innocents abroad' job. Although I had traversed London calmly enough on Friday to get to St Kat's, that was at lunchtime with no frantic commuters about, just me and a thin selection of ambling, confused 'tourists'. An early flight on Monday meant that I'd have to travel home during rush hour. I had visions of me clinging to an underground walk-way wall, face like a rabbit caught in the headlights, watching the torrent of determined and unsympathetic 'suits' flow purposefully past me.

My Bee's Lemon survived the slugs
No such drama in the end. I'd set the alarm for 06:45 and walked to Tower Hill tube by 07:15 with nobody much about yet. My District Line train to Victoria filled up but I'd bought my Gatwick Express ticket on Friday, so I marched through the crowds in Victoria to grab my seat on that, made Gatwick with half an hour to spare before I needed to check in, so checked in anyway and went to find some breakfast.

Roast Guinea fowl 'welcome home' supper. Not one of
our birds!
It was a nice easy flight home with the plane only 1/3 full, so nobody next to me in '25A'. Liz met me from Knock and delivered me home. I love the trip and the Cambria stuff but it is always lovely to be home to Liz, one of Liz's welcome home meals (Guinea fowl roast followed by raspberry and blackberry 'cranachan'), to the livestock and to our own bed. Happy, weary traveler.

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