If you’re been enjoying my serialised memoir The Tadorna Days, you might like to know that my novel Whales and Strange Stars, which was inspired by Grove Ferry and my days on the river, is available in e-formats for just 99p/99c for the next few days. See if you can spot the similarities! You can find the book here
Chapter 5 – The Launch
In which we put Tadorna back in the water again…
When Dad and I had taken a grip, one each side, and carried the dinghy down the slip, I couldn’t help a thrill of anticipation at being on the water again – my first trip of the new year. There lay the little boat, freshly cleaned, with its feet in the water, while I slid the oars aboard, along with an umbrella, my binoculars and a well-thumbed wild-flower book. It was cold and damp even for mid-March. I lifted the bow and edged her down until she ran afloat. It was such a lovely sensation that, with a whoop of delight, I stepped firmly onto the boards and pushed hard off the slipway with my other foot, which got caught in the backwash and came in rather soggy. While I stared in dismay at my wet shoe, we drifted over and collided with the bridge pier, adding another chip to the collection on the gunwale. The boat and I disappeared under the bridge.
Recovering, I grasped the oars, pulled clear and rowed off down the moorings. The boats looked deserted, still winter-bound. Halfway down I met Len Miller, doing his rounds. He waved, bending to check the ropes; I waved back. I wondered why people always wave at a passing boat. As I approached Tadorna’s mooring I held station in the middle of the river to admire the flowering alder opposite; such a graceful tree. Underneath it, a little cruiser was covered from bow to transom in discarded catkins; I imagined they were not so taken with it over there. As I turned the dinghy I saw our deserted landing-stage again, and pictured Tadorna back in her old place, resplendent in new paint and fittings.
It began to drizzle. I heaved on the oars, heading back upriver. As I passed the boatpark wall I caught a glimpse through the gateway of Len and Dad talking, and a flash of Tadorna’s side. But I rowed on, up beyond the great elm standing massive on the bank. I loved the sound of rowing; the gentle plat as the blades dip, the hollow thud and creak as the butts chafe against the oarlocks, the rattle as the oars lift and the patter of the drips as they pour from the returning blade, falling back in a shining line of circular ripples.
Some of the sallows upstream were just in flower with golden catkins. As we finally neared the first bend above Grove, it began to rain in earnest, so I pulled hard and sent the dinghy under the trees, looking for shelter. The yellow pollen came showering down on my hair and on the clean boards as we bumped the low branches. I put up the umbrella and reached behind me for a line. In dismay I realised I had taken it off for the cleaning, and that it was still lying neatly coiled in the boot of the car. So, we drifted; the sallow twigs scratched and caught at the umbrella; on the wooded slope, high above, the green woodpecker laughed and laughed. I listened and watched until the rain eased, and then set off wearily and damply for home. Halfway back, a train came rushing along the riverside line, with two carriages and three people in them. They all waved.
Tadorna’s sojourn in the boatpark had lasted nearly three months. After an enthusiastic start, the refit progressed slowly, and stopped altogether when it snowed and froze all through the middle of February. When the weather eased, we came out to find Tadorna drying off in the watery sunshine, though there were still small icicles hanging off the gunwale on the shady side. She stood on old concrete base, the foundation of a bird-house that once stood within the barnyard walls, and as winter wore on it became increasingly spotted with white, blue and sludgy anti-algal paint.
On mild January days, Mum and I would walk down the road from Grove Ferry to the old boathouse, hunched by its dugout cut. It lay about half a mile downstream, among the sheep pastures where the river comes close to the road. There were pale rafters showing through gaps in the red roof, and rank upon rank of yellow grasses closing in around it. The cut was filling up with reeds. Through the knotholes in the planking you could see inside; the water full of rubbish and the rafters full of birds’ nests. More and more light found its way in as the woodwork decayed, and the brilliance of the river showed through gaps in the gateway. Across the road we would lean on the brick bridge and look out over the turf fields and pasture, just open green land with straight, dredged-out drainage ditches cutting across it. Far off, we would hear the bleating of sheep, and the thin cries of plovers out on the turf. This was the point where the river valley met the coastal marshes, and you could see almost to the sea.
During the February snow we had a visit to a chandlery shop at Ramsgate with Frank and Rene. It was set into a niche in the harbour wall, almost cut into the cliff, and turned out to be an Aladdin’s cave. The smell was wonderful – a mixed-up unmistakably boaty smell of rope, oiled wool, rubber and varnish. Then the colours, red predominating, but blue and yellow too, luminous orange and green, as bright as possible.
There were glowing marker-buoys, fashionable sailing sweaters, ropes and lines everywhere, gleaming brass fittings, buckets and brooms, rubber dinghies, nets, varnished masts, ingenious interior fitments, sleeping bags, diving cylinders, striped flasks, flares, wonderful cookers on gimbals, compasses, spear-guns, shiny keels, hooters, non-slip yachting shoes, goggles, flags, lamps and a glorious array of hats. And a thousand other things, piled right up to the ceiling and sometimes hanging off it.
We stared, enchanted, and then remembered rather sheepishly that all we wanted was a tin of algae-resistant paint, a few replacement cleats and some decking material. We lingered a long time, though, over the amazing gadgets on display, resisting the impulse to buy them all. But a fat coil of indestructible rope got the better of us, on the pretext that it was sure to come in handy, and irresistible, this – a gorgeous red ensign to fly at the re-launching.
In early March we decided that Tadorna must be back in the water in time for Easter, so that we could have our first trip of the year on Good Friday, which had become our traditional beginning to the boating season. Since Easter fell at the beginning of April that year, we had only a couple of weeks of unpredictable March weather to complete the fitting-out. All the same, by the end of March everything was ready for the launch.
When the great day came, it turned out to be freezing – dank and miserable with an icy drizzle in the air. A great tit, our regular companion during the refit, sang loudly from the big sycamore by the slipway. We stood shivering in the boatpark wondering if anyone else would turn out on such a day. Launchings were always fun, except for the owner of the boat in question, who imagines all possible disasters. Some say there’s nothing to it, like Norman Pettingell, a leading member of the boat club fun faction. Norman’s idea of a really good launch was to take the boat and trailer to the top of the slip and let it trundle down alone. Thus, when everyone gathered to help, Norman’s voice could be heard among the general babble shouting, ‘Let ’er go!”
I never saw anyone actually do this, and most launches were infinitely gentler, with many hands to steady the boat’s passage back into the water.
Occasionally, after the relief of getting the boat back in safely, everyone would stand in dazed silence while the boat floated off downriver, no-one having thought to put a line on it, until someone had the presence of mind to dash off for a dinghy and give chase before it crashed into something and chipped the new paintwork.
For our own launch, quite a few people turned up to help, led by Frank and Rene, and even more to watch from the bridge, led by Len Miller. Tadorna sat in the boatpark, aglow with fresh paint. She was the brightest thing at Grove, no question. Very soon, I thought to myself, I would sit again with my elbows on the pulpit rail, watching the water speeding underneath. At the stern they were fixing on the little outboard we had borrowed for the day since our own engine was not yet back from its winter overhaul.
When all was ready we began to reverse the process we had followed when we brought her out, pushing her back onto the slipway top with much groaning and puffing, and slipping bricks under the trailer wheels while we hitched her to the big winch. Faces known and unknown began to form a little crowd of spectators; passing cars stopped on the bridge to watch, and had to be gruffly chased off by Len to avoid disaster on the level crossing.
I took the bow-line and stood aside, holding it out of the way. The winch creaked, the bricks were pushed aside, and Tadorna began to inch her way down the slip. As the trailer wheels ran under the water, the shouting and arm-waving between the trailer-steadiers and the winch-operators grew to a crescendo; they stopped for a final check. A few more turns of the winch, and the stern began to bump gently on the rests – she was afloat! The front lines were set free, and with a push from Dad and a cheer from the crowd she went sailing out into the river. I pulled lightly on the rope and brought her into the bank, while Janet caught the stern with a boathook. Tadorna was a live thing again, and I was proud fit to burst to be associated with her.
There was a pause on the slipway while everyone got their breath back. In another moment activity began again, and the trailer was on its way back up the slip. Janet and I made Tadorna fast and went to help.
It soon became obvious that we had a problem. The incoming tide was unusually high – perhaps too high to allow Tadorna back under the bridge to reach her own moorings. ‘No chance.’ as Len Miller put it succinctly.
Dad and Frank were equally sure that it could be done, and set about starting the engine. All we needed, they said, was some ballast, and beckoned all the helpers to jump aboard. Tadorna was soon floating noticeably lower in the water. Janet and I were ordered onto the bow, and sat with our heads below pulpit rail level, in case of any collision. Len cast off for us and stood on the bank with folded arms awaiting the worst.
We puttered off upriver, turned, and headed for the middle of the centre arch. There was still a small crowd on the bridge – this was potentially more entertaining than the launch. With a few yards to go, we realised we had forgotten to let down the windscreen, which folded flat on the cabin roof, and Frank threw the engine into reverse.
Both Tadorna and the engine seemed baffled by this sudden change of direction; the outboard stalled, and the boat drifted sideways. Janet and I gazed at each other in dismay as the pulpit rail jammed under the arch. Len shook his head.
We freed the rail, started the engine and tried again. This time we made it with a bare inch to spare. We girls, crouched awkwardly on the bow, looked up as we came out the far side, to a row of faces peering down at us inquiringly. Their mouths moved, but we heard nothing above the roar of the little outboard, struggling manfully with all the excess baggage. So they waved, and the ‘ballast’ all waved back.
Soon, Tadorna was safely back at her own landing-stage, neatly moored, and with only a minor scratch on the pulpit rail to show for her adventures. We swabbed out the muddy footprints the ‘ballast’ had left, and the borrowed outboard, none the worse for its experience, was sent home. It was so good to see everything back in its proper place.
Over at the boatpark, the great tit was still singing from the sycamore. It all looked very empty, with Tadorna’s old place full of daylight, and the uninterrupted view across the fields restored. A pile of breezeblocks we had used to prop up the trailer, and some paint spots on the concrete were all that remained to show she had ever been there. After all those weeks she had seemed like a permanent fixture. But, despite the cold and damp, we all knew the boating season was really under way; the launch was just the beginning.
Look out for chapter six of The Tadorna Days, in which we intrepidly begin the boating season…
Chapter 4 – The Laying Up
In which we take Tadorna out of the water for a refit…
The road to Grove ran across the marshes, and we followed it out from Thanet many times. On the low land the reeds crept out among the roadside trees, and the river was never very far away. The road ran up onto the ridge and away to Canterbury, with Grove Ferry Hill a little side turning. Grove itself was a hidden place – tucked in behind the ridge, it could not be seen from the main road – and the feeling of coming upon it suddenly partway down the hill, was one of private discovery. No visitor could resist a pause on the bridge, even in the dull season of early winter.
Grove in winter could be the very picture of desolation, with the moorings half deserted, and muddy smears on the sides of the remaining boats, all buttoned up for the winter. But there were moments of excitement at both ends of the season at the laying-up and fitting-out, or ‘laying-out’ as Rene called them both indifferently. Frank and Rene were the first to offer to help when, after two summers, we decided to take Tadorna out of the river for a refit. We had arranged winter quarters for her in a corner of the club boat-park, formerly the goose barnyard by the slipway.
The bringing out of boats always caused a great deal of interest at the Ferry. Laying-up was a special social occasion; everyone gathered, mostly to stand with folded arms on the bridge, or at any safe distance, and criticise those working on the slipway. Heaven knows, there were plenty of mistakes to make, and between us we made them all. It was all too easy, for instance to trundle a trailer down the slip and under the murky water without remembering to attach a line to it, or to crash the boat into the concrete piers of the bridge. The River Stour in winter, grey with floodwater, was a fast-flowing and unforgiving river sometimes.
Our own laying-up operations, one nippy January day, had a large audience of assorted anglers and club members. Getting Tadorna onto the trailer was relatively easy – we had done this sort of thing often enough not to make complete fools of ourselves in front of all those people, and the trailer we had borrowed for the winter had a little winch on the bow end, so we simply wound her on. As Tadorna lodged on the trailer and ceased to float, the life seemed to go out of her. As the winch turned she came up pouring water and limp weed, heavy and uncomfortable. The same boat that only minutes before could be moved by a touch with a broom handle was now solid and too heavy to move at all without mechanical help. She sat miserably on the oily trailer, dripping.
The trailer progressed to the top of the slipway, very slowly, with the aid of the large, ancient winch – a relic of the old ferry, I guess – that lived in a nettle patch at the top. We slid chocks under the trailer wheels while we discussed the next more. How would we turn her and take her into the boatpark? We could bring the car out and tow her in. No we couldn’t. She was blocking the entrance, and we would have to unwinch her and take the cable off first. ‘Well,’ somebody suggested, ‘we’ll push her in – she can’t be that heavy.’
So poor Tadorna was unceremoniously grabbed on all sides by many hands and bundled round through the gateway. And there she sat, ruffled, with many an oily handprint on her hull.
Once she was installed in the boatpark, under the sheltering wall, and out of sight of the river, the crowd melted away. It felt very odd to climb aboard and feel no give, no gentle dancing away under your weight. Even stranger to sit in the cabin with no movement, no swaying in and out from the bank, no creaking of lines, no squeaking of the hull against rubber tyres.
I slipped away to the moorings, through the little gate and along the muddy path past the inn. The great Lombardy poplars squashed together between the inn and the river creaked in the wind, a familiar sound now. Peggy was in her berth under a little sycamore. Frank and Rene’s elegant white boat had been specially built for their retirement, and they kept her spotless. Our own mooring, a few yards on, looked painfully deserted. The old shaggy mop with the wormy handle was still in place by the uprights, and the permanent lines were draggling in the water as we had left them. I pulled them in and coiled them on the planks, then began to walk back past the bare places in the grass where the dinghy gunwales rested when we leaned them against the garden wall in summer, still feeling the floating sensation that clung on after a day on the river.
It would be hours, I knew, before it wore off; sometime in the night I would wake and find Tadorna’s rocking had faded away. In the meantime I could still feel her swinging on her line and bumping the moorings with little clunks and pats and innumerable small boaty sounds.
Look out for chapter five of The Tadorna Days, in which we put her back in the water again…
Chapter 3 – At Grove Ferry
In which we learn some history…
The slipway by the bridge was the only trace left of the old ferry at Grove. I remembered it well from childhood, a big plank raft – big enough for cars – with a winch and cables, that used to ply to and fro across the river. Sometimes we took our old car across, just for the pleasure of the return trip, which cost a few pennies. I remembered enjoying the floating sensation, the marvellous free feeling as the ramp ceased to touch the slipway. I remembered watching the water as it sucked and sloshed round the heavy soaked planking. I remembered watching one bank advancing and the other retreating, and the views up and down river magically opening up and closing again, as the gap of green water slowly shrunk before us.
And I could hardly have forgotten the white geese that lived in the barnyard by the other slipway; as the ferryman winched us in, they would rush down, honking furiously, until the bow-wash ran over their orange paddles, and they scattered in confusion. When the ferry grounded with a crunch, the wash would slop up after the retreating geese as they went flapping back up the slip to a safe vantage at the top. They ran down in full cry like this each time the ferry crossed. At the age of eight or so I was very frightened of them.
The ferryman operated from a tiny cottage built into the barnyard wall. It was barely more than a room, and I don’t know if anyone actually lived there. It was whitewashed and had a flat roof with a strange castellated edge.
There were no boats at Grove then, or very few. It was an undisturbed place, slightly out-of-this-world, despite the station which was still in regular use. It had a history though – the old inn had started life as a customs-house in the days when the river was a going concern, and barges passed up and down from the sea. The sea is only a few miles away as the crow flies, but quite a few more by the river, which takes a winding course.
Despite attempts to improve the route, the river silted up and the trade ceased, and only the inn remained at Grove to show that it had ever been more than a sleepy crossing-place. It was a rambling house with additions made over the years, with small and large rooms leading darkly and unexpectedly from one another. Tacked onto the inn buildings was a room like a little low-slung barn, with a tall rickety chimney. This was the old drying-house for the lavender that used to be grown at Grove, another piece of the past.
All this changed suddenly and drastically in the early sixties when it was decided to replace the ferry with a bridge. The twentieth century had arrived at last, and it swept away much of the past. The ferry became only a memory. All that remained of it was the slipway where the geese used to run. Instead they built the white bridge – it had only been in place a year or two when we bought Miranda. The span was graceful, especially when seen from the river. It was only a small bridge, and well-suited to its site, with a fringe of handrails on top. The harsh whiteness of the concrete mellowed year by year as it weathered, and the swallows began to nest beneath its arches. We always found it a friendly sight as we came back downriver to the moorings.
The coming of the age of the motor-car was completed by the closure of the station. The little station house became redundant with the departure of the last station master, and only the crossing-keeper remained until the installation of continental barriers, and then his cottage fell vacant, too.
Across the river, the goose barnyard fell into disrepair. The barn roof was lost, and only its empty enclosing wall remained. Grass began to grow over the heaps of fallen bricks and timbers. The ferryman’s cottage became a storeroom.
Among all this something else new came to Grove Ferry. Boats – that is, small pleasure boats. Little landing-stages began to appear on the banks, and soon both sides of the river outside the inn, as well as a long frontage extending beyond the barnyard wall were crowded with boats. With the boats came the boat club, bringing new life to Grove.
The Grove Ferry Boat Club was open to all who kept boats at Grove, and we were introduced to it by Frank and Rene. It was newly-formed when we bought our first boat, but showing distinct signs of liveliness. All the active members soon became our friends, and we joined in the treasure-hunts, the downstream rallies, the strawberry teas and the regatta days. The membership was very varied, and sometimes at variance. There was one element that thought the club should be conducted like a rich Thames yacht club, while another felt it should be purely an agency for promoting fun. We fell somewhere outside the two camps, but we enjoyed the friction between them very much. This was necessarily worse during the winter, since boat club activities were then mostly held indoors. The club had no premises of its own, and the yacht club faction encouraged the use of the inn as official meeting place, probably because the owners were of the yacht club persuasion, and felt that the more anarchic elements could thus be kept under control. The fun faction, ably led by Frank and Rene had other ideas, and promptly deserted to the tea-room, which became the meeting-place for virtually all the active membership on Sunday afternoons. It was frequently packed to capacity.
The tearoom was the old lavender drying-house, cleared out and spruced up. It was run by Len Miller, the River Bailiff, and his wife Bea. Len and Bea lived in a caravan in the inn garden, and Len took his work very seriously. He was a familiar figure about the riverbank, portly and pink-faced, always dressed in tweeds and a hat with fishing flies tucked into the band. Len loved the river and its wildlife and guarded them strictly. If you asked him nicely he would show you a wren’s nest in the ivy-covered wall by the moorings: he would lift a leaf – he knew the exact leaf – and there it was. The boats at Grove came under his care, too, and he did his rounds of the moorings daily to see that all was well. His own boat, Melissa, which he built himself, was moored in the shadow of the garden wall near Tadorna.
Len Miller had done the conversion work on the old drying-house himself; he had certainly given it character, if not an old-world look. The wood for the doors, he told us, had come down the river as driftwood. They had all been done over in his favourite form of decoration, mock woodgrain done in varnish. This was very much Len’s trademark, and appeared wherever he had any influence at Grove.
As the light faded on winter afternoons, in came the moorings crowd with the odd frozen angler. Sunday after Sunday we would all crowd in.
There was plenty of opportunity for gossip; boat club business was discussed at length, new gadgets were inspected and scoffed at, boats up for sale were considered, haggled over and sometimes sold, and on the darkest of winter days, the summer was relived. Old tales and new were passed round like a bag of toffees and enjoyed by all. Rene was a great teller of stories, and we all spent many happy afternoons steaming up the windows with our tall tales and loud laughter. Heaven only knows what the yacht club faction made of it.
On the far wall stood the old fireplace from the drying days, now closed up, with the chimney above. There was a hollow space let into the chimney breast, and it hung Len’s poster, his pride and joy. It was a large photograph showing a river with green banks and reeds and fine trees. It wasn’t our river, but it could have been. Year after year it remained, the image of a summer day when it was dark and wet outside, while we laughed and chattered among the smells of brewing tea, wet wool and half-dried muddy boots. It was the very picture of winter-shut-out.
Look out for chapter four of The Tadorna Days, in which we take Tadorna out of the water for a refit…
Part two of my gentle family memoir of 1960s Kent, The Tadorna Days, first published in 1989.
Chapter 2 – A Summer Idyll
In which we try the new boat out for the first time…
I was perched side-saddle on the narrow bow, chin on the rail, watching the water speeding away below: it felt remarkably like flying. Gliding along with the swallows, swoop and dip, the sense of sheer speed was surprising, considering we were moving only a little faster than walking pace. It was a heavy July day with a promise of thunder, and we were taking Tadorna out on the river for the first time.
Ahead of us the water was quite flat. Undisturbed, it lay like a heavy floating skin, clinging thickly to every half-submerged stem and stick. It lay in loops and rings, following the contours of the mud at the base of the banks, making detours round projecting reed-clumps, underpinning the low sweep of the willows; every hole in the bank, every overhanging stem and leaf, every willow-herb flower reproduced faithfully in perfect reflection beneath, upside-down and two shades darker. The whole bank was visible simply by watching the water. On such a still day, the image was so clear that the eye could hardly tell where the real bank ended and the optical trick began. The reflections of the alders and sallow thickets, falling nearer the middle of the river were less steady, betrayed by every bubble rising from the river bed, scatted by the whirligig beetles that gleamed like ball-bearings as they circled on the surface film.
Even inches ahead the sun’s reflection lay, bright, round, undistorted in the dark mirror. And then Tadorna came. Droplets sprang out, bursting through the skin and making the sun wobble. When we turned at the next bend, we would run over it.
The water made a little curved wave before the wooden stem, resisting the boat, then split like a wishbone, flying up astride the bow, leaving cold spots on my ankle. The wash snuffled softly, the tone altering as the boat shifted her weight, the almost imperceptible rocking sending her now down on this side, now on that. The air was so warm that the splashes evaporated almost as soon as they touched her sides, leaving the trace of a weedy scent and a faint green highwater mark.
If you looked through the reflection you could see the river bed. Streamers of weed waving languorously in the current, like eels at anchor, untidy masses of water lilies, all underwater except one leaf held in up to its neck and bobbing up and down as the clump shifts; and that dark shape, darting away crosswise as our shadow fell on it, was a fish.
The bow-wave seemed reluctant to spoil this perfect surface, overhanging the smooth water until the last possible split second and then rolling over on itself, tumbling back down in a shoal of bubbles, seeing off the shining beetles in a flurry of foam, and turning the floating leaves stalk over tip in the shattered reflection. But the smoothness reasserted itself almost immediately, regaining its decorum after the outburst, settling, collecting and levelling quietly behind the boat. When the little wave had hit the bank with a splat, sending the moorhens scuttering up into the herbage as it sloshed after them, it turned back on itself, lost its impulsion and was gone, and it was as if we had never passed.
Floating downstream to us there was a log, with a mass of weed tangled round it; the weed-cutters had been at work upriver. The surface of the water clung to log and weed alike, and they seemed not to break it, to be part of the surface. This log had been in the river a long time; the water made all things that live in it like itself. The rough bark of the land tree was worn away, leaving the bare wood, angles and stumps planed over, smoothed into fluid shapes, as streamlined as a roach or a lilystem. The weed had collected in the crook of its arm as it rested aground in some shallows, or lay hooked round a sunken willow branch, drying into a solid mass, until some change in wind or tide dislodged the whole thing and sent it off downriver like a raft.
On and on it came, sailing serenely down the middle of the channel, the log frozen in its pose by the constraining weed-mass. Close-to, you could see the waterline, sharply defined. Everything above it was parched and flattened, everything below it green and streaming. Closer still the air became heavy with the sour vegetable smell of the weed, and the sweeter, deeper scent of wet wood.
Suddenly it was upon us. The weed-raft rippled as our bow-wave ran under it, and then came the hollow bump-bump-bump as the end of the log ran under the hull. There was a crack and splutter from behind, a shudder and swerve.
Janet and I were thrust into something dark and scratchy; then came such a bump that we nearly fell over the rail. The weed-mass had fouled the propeller and we had crashed straight into an overhanging willow. The engine stopped and the silence came crowding in; then the creak of willow twigs scraping jarringly on the hull as Tadorna floated back. The twigs twanged back on our hands and faces as the boat backed out, until at last we emerged in a cloud of furry willow seed and disgruntled midges. From the corner of my eye I saw the log, free of the weed at last, rolling over and over away downstream. We made the boat fast.
We were upstream, about an hour’s ride from Grove at poodling pace, out among the marshy fields and thickets of the valley where hardly a footpath came down to the river. We called the place the telegraph-pole reach, after the line of poles on the other bank. It was pleasantly uninhabited, except for the anglers, and we came here often.
The weed on the engine floated out behind the boat in elegant strands, like a tail. But once the engine was tipped up, and it all came out of the water, it collapsed into a slimy green pudding with the propeller blades hidden somewhere in its depths. More weed-rafts came sailing down, some entangled with branches, some draped with dead fish, shiny side up, and one with a pair of quarrelsome wagtails sparring daintily above what proved to be a drowned sheep.
This collision was a sign of our incompetence with the new boat, as well as the inadequacies of the outboard engine that came with her. We hadn’t fallen foul of a weed-raft since our early days with Miranda, and never would again, though they cluttered the river every summer.
When the engine was finally cleared, we decided to let Tadorna drift downstream to the good picnic site at Puxton Corner, an almost inaccessible place except by boat. All we needed was a pair of paddles from the dinghy to keep her on course, and to fend off if we came too close to the bank. Janet let go the line, and I pushed off the bank with the boat hook. Up flew the willow seed and the little black flies that had settled on the bow. There was a smack of backwash against the low branches, and Tadorna caught in the stream, turned sideways on and began to drift, lazy as a log; just another piece of flotsam. I took my turn with the paddle in the cockpit.
I paddled twice, three times. The boat turned and the curve of the river appeared over the bow once more. This was a special treat, and the best way to see the river. No engine noise, no wash, just the slosh of the paddles. On any other river, perhaps, we could not have done this for fear of collision with other craft. But it was always so quiet that any approaching boat would have been heard long before it came into view. Besides, we knew what other boats were likely to be out, and where they might be, and we were not expecting company, except maybe Peggy.
The sand martins were double-stacked on the wires – a sure sign of late summer. They hung suspended over the fields, leaping into the air now and then for a foray over the river surface, buzzing and twittering all the way. The breeze sprang up, only a breath, but enough to turn the boat again. The bow swung round, the martin-laden wires vanished, and the other bank appeared. Our willow was left far behind now, indistinguishable among all the other trees, though its slim, yellow leaves were floating alongside us still. A dip of the paddle and Tadorna headed downstream again.
We shipped oars to look for fish. First there was nothing, but presently a heavy sludge-green shape moved unconcernedly, almost under the boat; we all crowded to one side to see it. A big bream, not intimidated by the likes of us; it slouched along beside us. Perhaps it was aware that this was the time of year when big fish die, and their bodies lie beached on mudbanks, or stranded in pools of surface scum against a branch, or drift off with their gleaming sides showing, all camouflage forgotten, until the gulls come to tidy up.
Drifting round the shallow bend out of the telegraph pole reach, the view opened out to us, all the way to the valley edge. In the distance there were cornfields, bright yellow, among the grey-green pasture, and dark woods on the height of the ridge. On the edge of the valley floor it changed. The fields from there to the river were rich and marshy and dark green with rush tussocks and straight, dug-out drainage ditches trimmed with waterplants and full of duckweed. Each of these watercourses let itself into the river through a sluice or grating. The sluices were set in little walls, and we often moored beside them to fish or watch the small-fry paddling about.
We drifted on until the crooked tree at Puxton Corner came into sight. As we moored, Peggy appeared round the corner and we picnicked ashore with Frank and Rene. Afterwards I put my sketchbook in the dinghy and rowed across the river. I sketched the place; the clump of willows with the strange bent bough, the shady hawthorns, lush green and yellow grasses, the iris leaves by the water, and our two boats, looking well, if a little dusty, and Dad fishing quietly from Tadorna’s cockpit. An idyllic and familiar scene – we had spent very many days like this with Miranda.
In the late afternoon we set off for home, Peggy and Tadorna cruising downstream together in the golden light. Halfway back we came upon Rose in June, another of the Grove Ferry boats, and the only other one we had seen all day. She was tubby, solid, clinker-built, with a high superstructure, and easily identified at any distance by her russet and white paintwork. Her owners were publicans, and she was named after their pub. They were keen on fishing, too, so Rose in June was quite often to be found upriver, moored in some sheltered spot, with a couple of rods projecting over the stern. As we passed we slowed and yelled the inevitable question, ‘Any fish?’
The reply was a smiling thumbs-down, so Tadorna and Peggy picked up speed and ran on downstream to Grove Ferry.
Look out for the next chapter of The Tadorna Days, in which we learn some Grove Ferry history…
It’s surprising what you find when you clear out cupboards. One of the things I unearthed during my autumn clean out was a copy of the very first book I wrote. It was published in a small way, locally, with my own illustrations. It’s a memoir of my teenage days on the riverbank in 1960s Kent, and since people have asked me about the inspiration for my book Whales and Strange Stars, I thought it might be fun to serialise the real story on this blog. I’ve resisted the temptation to edit (it was published in 1989), as it shows my younger self speaking. So here goes, folks, I give you The Tadorna Days.
Chapter 1 – The Graceful Tub
In which we find the boat to fit the name…
All four of us were standing in a row, leaning our elbows on the rail of the bridge at Grove Ferry. Down below us, a pretty blue and white cruiser lay moored to a mossy stake. She was about eighteen feet long, cut high at the sides, a bit tubby perhaps, but with a splayed-out, curved stern which looked wonderfully graceful. In the warm quiet of a midsummer evening, she seemed perfect.
We stood in companionable silence. My sister Janet and I looked at each other questioningly – could Mum and Dad be persuaded to buy? I was fifteen, Janet a year younger. Beneath us, the river was green and soupy, and flowing downstream sluggishly. It left green marks on the cruiser’s sides as it passed. It was low water. The view upstream was delightful – a clutch of small boats moored to the bank in the shade of an old wall, the ruins of a barnyard, overhung by willows, and a great elm tree with huge limbs standing alone just beyond. On the right, the river was bounded by a steep-sided ridge, covered with trees, with the railway line cut in near the base. On the left were open marshy field of turf or reeds, stretching away across the valley edge.
The river itself followed a long straight reach, and then turned and vanished into the marshy valley on its way to Canterbury. It was the Kentish Stour, and Grove Ferry was a small place about halfway between the city and the sea, standing where the valley met the empty coastal marshes.
Without a word, we all crossed the bridge and leaned on the downstream rail. The view this way was even prettier, with boats moored both sides at little landing-stages. It was very colourful. On the left was the old station house, a little redbrick Victorian building, now deserted. The station had been closed as one of Dr Beeching’s economies, a couple of years earlier, so the windows were boarded up and the sparrows nested happily under the gutters. Though the trains still thundered through on the way to Ramsgate, they no longer stopped at the little halt at Grove Ferry.
On the right was the Grove Ferry Hotel itself, an impressive Georgian house with huge sash windows and a double-gabled roof. There were two tall Lombardy poplars set between the inn and the water, creating a very distinctive outline visible for miles around.
Just in front of the inn was moored a tiny cruiser with a hurricane lamp hanging in the window. Her name was Miranda, and she belonged to us. We were all very much aware that if we bought the new boat we would have to part company with her.
Our family lived at Westgate-on-Sea, about ten miles away on the Isle of Thanet, and it had long been our ambition to own a small boat. This has seemed an impossible dream until, in the early 1960s, my parent had gone into business with my grandfather and found they had backed a winner for once, and there was cash to spare for boating.
Miranda had been bought on impulse two years earlier, and we had learned about boating very much at her expense. She had carried us on picnics and fishing trips and downstream expeditions. We had explored the river from the shallow, weedy waters upstream at Fordwich to the silty wastes of the estuary in Pegwell Bay. We had run aground on mudbanks and tangled with waterweed, and broken many a shearing-pin on her engine along the way. Loaded down with friends and family Miranda had borne it all patiently. Sometimes there were so many people on the bow and cabin roof that her outboard would almost be hoisted out of the water. She took many a buffet for our carelessness.
Whatever our worries or problems at home or at school, all were left behind each Sunday when we came out to the moorings at Grove Ferry. It was another world; a retreat, an adventure, and a good laugh guaranteed. Each of us valued it very highly.
On still summer evenings we had fished quietly from her cockpit; in the mornings we sailed downriver, we girls dragging our feet in the cold bow-wash. When autumn turned we had come and cleaned her dusty deck and fastened her up for the winter. In the spring we took her under the bridge again in the fresh winds. All through the year the hurricane lamp swung on its hook in her window.
But, after a disastrous attempt to sleep the night on board out among the flat fields downriver, we had to admin Miranda was too small, and we began to look for another boat. It had to be larger – but not too tall to go under the bridge; it must be suitable to sleep all four of us in reasonable comfort; it must have a good-sized cockpit for fishing, and a cabin tall enough for everyone to sit upright; it must be shallow enough in draught to go up to Fordwich at low-water, and tough enough to take a turn round the bay in a choppy sea. We had already chosen a name for it – Tadorna, the Latin name for the wild shelducks we saw out on the marshes. It was a good, solid, well-rounded name, and seemed to embody everything we wanted in our new boat. All we had to do was find the boat to fit the name.
As soon as it became known along the moorings that we were looking, boats for sale seemed to come springing out of the woodwork. And, of course, it was reasoned that if we were buying we would also be selling, and critical eyes were cast on Miranda. Strangers came and leaned on the bridge rail, pointing her out. Meanwhile, we were led a merry dance up and down the river looking at prospective replacements.
We looked at very many and I don’t remember them all. Some were very nearly what we had in mind, but most were totally unsuitable. There were lumbering converted lifeboats and hefty barges – useless for the low-water nooks and crannies we loved to visit upstream. There was even a former naval cutter, rumoured to have been one of the Little Ships at Dunkirk. She was certainly old enough.
The search had gone on for weeks, and we began to despair. So the invitation to come out to Grove and inspect yet another boat that warm midsummer evening had us thinking it would be a wild goose chase again – until we saw that blue and white cruiser moored at her mossy stake just above the bridge.
We went down onto the riverbank for a closer look. She was a bit flat-bottomed, we thought, a little heavy for her size, but sure to be roomy inside. The low cabin roof raised up in an arch, a quite distinctive shape, unlike any other boat on the river. There was a green awning slung across the cockpit, and we hauled it up to look inside. A good, warm, clean smell came out. We saw slatted wooden seats, well-varnished, some good steering gear and a stout cabin door with a red and white lifebelt propped against it, bearing the name Tuffy-Two. Everything was tidy and wholesome. She was just what we wanted. And for me, it was love at first sight.
week later we were again on the riverbank in the evening sunshine, surveying the new boat with Frank and Rene Milne. Frank and Rene had been our friends since the day we took possession of Miranda, when they came strolling along the moorings to welcome us. Their boat, Peggy, was our moorings neighbour, berthed a little way downstream. They knew everyone on the moorings and all about boats and engines. They were indispensable. Rene was tall and slim with a dry and wicked sense of fun, which she never hesitated to use; Frank was grey-haired, with a rugged face and the first hint of arthritis in his gnarled hands. They had just retired when we first met.
I sat cross-legged in the shade of Tadorna’s bow while they talked, contentedly watching the deep green shadow she cast on the water, the waving line of the reflection of her bow, and the red and gold lights thrown into the water by the sun. Beyond, the green river ran on with a still surface, save for the dancing lights.
A couple of half-grown moorhens began pattering about across the river. Slow, shallow waves, smooth as glycerine, lapped at the sunken planks propping up the bank, and set the reflections swaying. A fish leapt; the midges swarmed in the warm air; sand martins swept by. The sun sank.
She was ours. The sale had gone through with barely a ripple within a couple of days. There was a queue of would-be buyers for Miranda, and she was already spoken for. So it was done, and Tuffy-Two was renamed Tadorna.
Watch out next week for Chapter Two of The Tadorna Days, in which we try out the new boat for the first time…