Cruising 600 miles from Surrey to Chester - part 1

Stephen Dowsett's journey

Stephen Dowsett's journey - Credit: Archant

Stephen Dowsett could have driven and been there in under five hours. Instead he decided to cruise his 45ft trad stern ‘Quidlibet’ to visit his daughter, starting from the Rivery Wey in Surrey, a return journey of over 600 miles and 300 locks

The tranquil scene at Braunston

The tranquil scene at Braunston - Credit: Archant

Deep down I must have known that I was destined to buy and own a narrow boat ever since my family and I helped a boat lock up the Caen Hill Flight one Sunday morning over 25 years ago. But long before I had the green light to go ahead, I spotted an offer I couldn’t refuse. A set of brand new mixer taps were on sale in a supermarket, one for a bath with shower attachment, one for the wash basin and one for the kitchen sink – and at £27 the lot an absolute bargain. Nothing to lose, even though the prospective boat had yet to reach the drawing board stage that was still eight years away.

Armed with taps I now set about the serious business of saving for a hull. Things were proceeding well until said funds were utilised for a deposit for my eldest daughter’s flat. Start again. Things were proceeding well until said funds were utilised for a deposit for my youngest daughter’s flat. Start again. Things were proceeding well until said funds were utilised for both daughter’s weddings within six weeks of each other. Eventually the perseverance paid off and the day came when I was the proud owner of a sailaway, beautifully built by Nick Thorpe and his team.

As it was a sailaway, I needed some hot and cold water on board so the obvious thing to do was to fit the bath tap over the bath, which I had installed. It was a proud moment the day I filled the boat’s water tank for the first time and turned on those taps – only to discover that the bath tap leaked so had to be replaced. The really sad thing was that although the taps had a three-year guarantee, the guarantee had expired over five years previously!

Now, four years after fitting the second set of bath taps, I’m at the beginning of an epic journey along the English rivers and canals.

Historic Cliveden House

Historic Cliveden House - Credit: Archant

On the second day of my planned 600-mile round trip from the River Wey in Surrey to Chester in Cheshire, I arrived at Maidenhead and moored downstream from the massive railway bridge crossing the River Thames.

The overcast start to the day had finally given way to a sunny late afternoon and evening. Having seen a programme on television earlier in the month about the Royal Academy and the rituals of inducting artists chosen by fellow academicians, I had decided that I really ought to join their ranks. The question remained how and where to start my artistic endeavours. Picasso had already cornered the market in cubism and I didn’t see the point of revisiting pointillism. The pointillists had already made their point.

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Every household in the country had at one time or another emulated Emin’s unmade bed. Banksy had cornered upmarket graffiti on virtually every street corner in the land.

Undeterred, a couple of weeks earlier I had visited my local art shop. They had just what I was looking for – a 36-piece sketching kit complete with pencil sharpener and two erasers! I hadn’t seen such an abundance of pencils since primary school and even then I hadn’t been trusted with anything sharper than an HB pencil. But here in the box was a phalanx of pencils including a deadly 6H – I knew that with these imposing rods of graphite I would be up for nomination in no time. But the best bit of all was the price – a real bargain at a penny under £13. It seemed a very reasonable price to pay for my prospective elevation to the Royal Academy.

Repositioning a lock gate

Repositioning a lock gate - Credit: Archant

I knew that lying under a table back home was a proper sketchpad. Pad and pencils had made their way to the boat. Inspired by the quality of my kit and the stupendous view of the railway bridge spanning the Thames flanked by trees, and through its centre arch, the magnificent stone road bridge in the distance. The view was perfect. I was inspired. I knew I couldn’t go wrong.

How wrong can one be? I think I once read that Michelangelo could draw a perfectly straight line freehand, or was it a perfect circle? I found out that it is very difficult drawing a straight line even with a ruler.

Drawing the graceful curves of the bridges’ arches freehand was even more of a nightmare. The erasers are already wearing a bit thin. This was going to be more difficult than I first thought. You should try drawing a million bricks. Even using a very fine pencil, the process becomes tiresome after a couple of minutes. I resorted to the bar of graphite. If Grayson Perry can be outrageous then damn it so can I.

I persevered for an hour more when out of the blue, a Dutch barge arrived and moored directly in front of me completely blocking my view. That put the kibosh on my first foray into becoming an acclaimed artist. Still most of my pencils were still intact and I hadn’t yet worn out my erasers completely. I made up my mind to find another suitable subject – only next time it wouldn’t involve drawing bricks. In any case a pile of bricks had already been exhibited at the Tate.

Busy CRT staff on the towpath

Busy CRT staff on the towpath - Credit: Archant

The following day dawned dull due to it being very overcast. The atmosphere was extremely oppressive as I motored up the long stretch of river bounded by woods and steep hills, overlooked by Cliveden House surrounded by mist in the far distance. Decades earlier Cliveden had hosted the Profumo scandal. This day the valley could have doubled for the set of Mordor in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. An impression reinforced by a massive steel sculpture of a beast frozen in time on the banks of the river and guarding the path to the house. I almost expected to see Mount Doom as I rounded the bend at the head of the valley!

In the next lock I found myself behind a three-storey River Cruiser called Majestic Lady. When in locks, it is customary to chat with the crews on other boats sharing the lock, so I said to the lady at the stern: “The boat was obviously named after you…” My compliment was somewhat undermined when she replied in a fit of Mandy Rice-Davies honesty: “Thank you – but you wouldn’t have said that before I had put my make-up on…”

Eventually I emerged on to a more open stretch of water and passed a waterside building proudly displaying a banner: “Learn how to row properly here”. This was obviously aimed at single folks because most married couples who are boaters have already mastered the art of rowing good and proper!

The GRP boat named Drifter had certainly lived up to its name; having drifted onto a weir, it was now in a very sorry state having been salvaged and hoisted on board a work barge moored adjacent to the weir. Two other objects drifting in the Thames caught my eye.

Making good progress

Making good progress - Credit: Archant

The first was the sad sight of a dead swan. I’m sure the Swan Uppers would be upset at the loss of this majestic bird. It was certainly upsetting seeing it resting sideways on the water slowly drifting towards the capital. The second was a rather lively grey squirrel swimming the width of the river. He wasn’t drifting nor doing the breaststroke but making excellent progress with a four-legged front crawl; his tail streaming behind him.

An unusual sight on the Oxford Canal

An unusual sight on the Oxford Canal - Credit: Archant