Chapter 9 – A Trip to the Bay
In which Tadorna and Peggy go to sea…
Midsummer’s eve, that year, was dull and damp. We bustled about on the landing-stage with the gear, amid the deep earthy scents of the grasses and the damp wooden smell of wet decking. The air in the cockpit was clammy under the musty hood, though it would soon be cleared by Dad’s cigarette smoke, or the warm gassy air from the cooker when we boiled the kettle.
There was a blue haze on the trees across the river, with a grey backdrop, still as still could be. Dark alders and pale grey willows drooped over the green and silver surface, with nodding moorhens silent under the bank edges. All the colours were muted, even the bright fenders and ensigns. There were drips off the pulpit rails, and the swallows had all gone home.
We were loading up for a weekend on the river, intending to spend the night at Pluck’s Gutter, and then take the early tide down to the estuary. Our neighbouring boat club at Sandwich had arranged a picnic on the beach at Sandwich Bay, and the Grove club were invited to join in. Only Peggy and Tadorna were going down. It was quite possible to cruise the whole way to the Bay and back in a single day, given an early start and a favourable tide, but we found it less exhausting to take a flying start from Pluck’s Gutter.
Under the small sycamore, Frank and Rene were busy loading Peggy. Soon we pulled out of the moorings and cruised off downstream with the evening ebb, a flotilla of two, heading for Pluck’s Gutter.
The rain had stopped, and I sat on the cool bow on a plastic bag as we slipped out among the fields, past the curious little row of poplars below Grove, past the old boathouse, on and on, the river becoming imperceptibly wider, reach by reach.
Down among the green fields and the dark hawthorns we sailed until we came to the place known to us as Blood Point. It was a deep V-shaped bend in the river, with a high mounded bank on the promontory, a slightly enclosed and uncomfortable place. Rene always said it was the site of a battle with the Vikings, and the mound the burial place of the many bodies. But since the spot was in the middle of the old Wantsum Channel and was probably under the sea at the time, it seemed unlikely to be true.
On and on across the flat fields we went with the bleating sheep watching from the banks, standing and staring, until we passed the grey building of the pumping-station marking the joining place of the Wantsum, and came in sight of Pluck’s Gutter.
It was a miserable evening as we made fast the boats in our old place by the Dunlin. The hoods were closed up straight away against the damp, and we retired to the cabins for supper. Mournfully the kettle whistled on the gas, steaming up the windows and bringing little droplets of condensation onto the cabin ceiling. It was hot and humid inside as we ate. As darkness began to fall we emerged, red in the face and sticky, and shambled off to the Dog and Duck with Frank and Rene.
It had seemed a very romantic idea to sleep out on the boat on midsummer’s night. But the short night was lengthened by dreary clouds closing in early. When I awoke the next morning it was scarcely light. There was nothing left of the bright glow I remembered the last time we stayed at Pluck’s Gutter, in May. No hawthorn perfume. This time it was just meadowsweet and damp, damp, damp.
I lay and listened to the rain, soft and pleasant, pattering on the water, on the cabin roof, on the hood, each surface with its own tone. I could hear the flutter of birds’ wings in the reeds, and hollow plops in the water; and the sinister patter of rats’ feet, echoing on wood – on the Dunlin’s deck, perhaps, or even along our own gunwale, not inches from our heads. I was worried by the presence of rats; I saw them sometimes at Grove, scurrying furtively under the landing-stages, to the dark places. I lay awake a long time, listening, and then dozed off again. At half-past six Mum’s alarm went off.
Just after seven, as we left the moorings, a creamy glow showed through the clouds. The rain was over and the damp stillness descended again, warmly. Peggy and Tadorna sailed off, out across the marshes, the river’s course running like a gutter down the middle of the old Wantsum Channel, all that remained of that broad seaway. It was still tidal though, and the drop from high to low water increased downstream, as did the proportion of salt water, and the character of the river changed slowly to match. Below Pluck’s Gutter, the riverside lands became clearly a drained coastal marsh. The river ran fairly straight, banked on both sides by great mud walls. In the distance the stark outline of the Ebbsfleet power station crept ever closer.
We made good time, and soon arrived at Minster Fields, a favourite picnic and rally site of the two boat clubs. The place was marked by a great line of pylons, taking the river in their stride; almost the only landmark in these empty reaches.
The Ebbsfleet power station was very near now. It was an amazing sight from the river. The concrete cooling towers rose up, steaming, hissing and pouring warm water back into the river, with the sinister hum of generators in the background. It was a weird place and none of us cared for it very much at close quarters. The towers were visible for miles around in this flat landscape. We were within earshot of the sea by now, a soft echo, though it could not be seen, and the salt tang on the air was clear and sharp above the strange steamy smells of the power station.
Although the sea was so close, there was still a long way to go to reach it. The Stour made a deep meandering loop down to Sandwich and back up to Ebbsfleet. The cause of this detour was a long shingle bank that settled across the old river mouth long ago, leaving only a narrow gap at Sandwich. The two ends of the loop came very close at Ebbsfleet, and there was once an attempt to make a cut through the bank to join them, but this was now closed off, and we had to follow the rambling river all the way down to Sandwich and back up through the salt marshes to arrive at the same point.
So we trudged on downriver. In front of us a square hill reared up out of the marshes; Richborough Castle, a Roman fortress and once an island in the Wantsum. It was another strange place with an eerie feel as Peggy and Tadorna cruised together along the short reach in its bulky shadow. It was full of the past, like so many places on the river, abandoned by the sea, left high and dry.
We all gave a cheer when the strange bridge at Sandwich came into sight – part medieval packhorse bridge, part modern. Going down to Sandwich always depended heavily on the state of the tides; at Grove, although the river was distinctly tidal, the drop to low water was only a couple of feet at most. The further you went upriver, the weaker the influence of the tides, until at Fordwich there was scarcely any upward flow at all. But downstream from Grove the river took on an ever more seaside and salty character until at Sandwich the difference between high and low tide was startling. At high tide a full river, grey-brown with silt, filled the banks to the brim, deep enough for a big yacht or even a small ship. And the boats moored at Sandwich were big – sea boats with a cluster of masts.
Beyond Sandwich we went soaring out into the salt flats, the sound and smell of the sea becoming stronger by the moment. As we passed the Sandwich boat club moorings, a little downriver from the town quay, some of their boats had already left for the bay, while others were preparing or just leaving. Tadorna and Peggy fell in among them, and we all went down in a convoy, laughing and waving.
We were regular visitors to the Sandwich club. It was always pleasant to wander down through their sprawling boatyard full of salt-encrusted new arrivals shored up on solid wooden props, of boats in all stages of refitting, and of weatherbeaten oldtimers, their hulls peeling and splitting, that would never be seaworthy again. It was a wide open poppy and mustard-blowing place, sandy and shingly, noticeably of the sea, not of the river, which was like a tidal creek at this level.
At low tide, the whole aspect of these salty downriver places was changed. The bridge at Sandwich, so lately up to its armpits in water, would be suddenly left with only its feet in the river, which shrank, in some places, to a narrow stream flowing unevenly through a gutter at the base of the mudbanks revealed by the water’s retreat. This was still wide enough for the likes of Tadorna to navigate. The boats at the quay would lie beached, settling unhappily at awkward angles on the pale mud, coated in a singular green slime of uncertain origin and heady smell.
When we arrived at last at Stonor Cut, where the river began to widen right out for the estuary, we were only yards from the point at the other end of the loop which we had passed earlier. From here downwards the river opened into a broad stretch of water, quite impressive at high tide, and, of course, a pathetic stream amid interminable mudbanks at low tide. The level could change quite quickly, and it was an intimidating place for a small boat. But at last the coastal marshes gave way to sand dunes, and, finally, to the sea.
We sailed down through the estuary and out at last into the water of Pegwell Bay, where we puttered around foolishly in the unaccustomed expanse, before running the boats ashore on Shellness.
It was odd to see Tadorna pulled up on the sand with waves running in behind her, among the other boats all stretched out like kites on the ends of their anchor ropes, all this with the background of the wide empty bay and the sea beyond. We all picnicked among the sand dunes and talked boats with the Sandwich contingent. Rene, as usual, managed to inspect every boat on the beach, and came back with a detailed report of other people’s good ideas.
At last the tide began to flow in once more and we were forced to begin the long journey back upriver to Grove Ferry. We pushed Tadorna back off the sands, and she bounced afloat again as we stowed the anchor. Janet and I paddled round with her and jumped aboard, dripping on the warm deck; then waving to our friends on the beach, we turned out into the bay again, looking for the river channel.
Peggy led the way looking superb – an elegant white boat surrounded by acres of gleaming water. The river-mouth was quite hard to identify from the seaward side and we followed the line of marker buoys carefully. As we ploughed along we suddenly heard the unmistakable slithering crunch of a boat running aground. It was a horrid sound. Frank and Rene were waving arms and boathooks indiscriminately, but to no avail. Peggy had run onto a sandbank. We slowed, turned and gingerly circled her. Whatever had brought Peggy to a halt didn’t stop Tadorna, her flat hull spattering and bumping on the wavelets. In the end we pulled poor Peggy off backwards; undignified but successful, and made our way cautiously back into the rivermouth.
So off we went on the rising tide, back between the great shelves of shining mud which smelt of salt and seaweed and sludge – quite different to the green river-scent at Grove Ferry – and headed for Sandwich. The river always seemed too big for us here. It was heavy and dangerous – scarcely the same river we pottered about on so carelessly upstream. It was good to be going back. Dad opened up the throttle and sent us roaring past the black hulk of a wreck beached on the mud, handsome even in its decay. Wrecks were not a happy sight, and we gladly left it in our wake.
Back at Grove Ferry, hours later, we swabbed and swept the sand and seaweed off the boat, souvenirs of a day at the seaside, and were grateful again for the meadowsweet and the moorhens, the quiet shade of the alders, and our safe, sheltered moorings.
Look out for the next chapter of The Tadorna Days in which we meet the sweeps and millers…