All about Arun

All about Arun:

To be honest Arun a thirty four foot traditional boat with something of the tug about her, is a bit of a blind spot in my boating memory. I have fewer photographs of her than any other of my boats, and events at the time:-

  • an ill-fated romance…
  • a failed struggle for artist identity…
  • the realisation I was increasingly being sucked back in to full-time work…
  • British Waterways pig-headed determination not to allow the development of a residential mooring between Islington Tunnel and City Road Lock, and our equally pig-headed determination as the ‘Frog Lane Association of Boaters’ to achieve it…

have combined confusingly to muddle my memory of the boat.

So, I’m re-reading the diary entries for Spring 1990. I want to make sense of things.

Interestingly, much of the impetus for a new boat came from re-reading LTC Rolt’s ‘Narrowboat’, and thinking about his ideas about a design for living prompted me to re-assess what my future priorities might be.

Tony Lewery describes this philosophical aspect of Narrowboat on the Canal Junction website:

Tom Rolt […] had already spent several years worrying out a personal philosophy, actively searching for a balance between the pressures of technology and the natural world. [Narrowboat describing his] adventure of living aboard a travelling houseboat and exploring the canal world was not a momentary accident. It was the culmination of a practical plan, a “grand design for living”, and some of that thoughtful consideration is implicit in this apparently simple travelogue. Arcadian maybe, but still optimistic that something important could be rediscovered and saved, something of use that could help rebuild some lost values of craftsmanship in the post-war future.

My re-reading of Narrowboat coincided with a determination to get my life back on track after that short relationship ended messily. Such moments, ones that feel deflating at the time can, in retrospect, be seen to be motivating, constructive even and a necessary prompt to action. This one of those times.

I began looking for a new boat shortly after bringing Lily Jane back to the mooring between Islington Tunnel and City Road Lock from what would turn out to be my final trip on her – just up to Berkhamstead and back – over the half term week. That was 24.o2.90.

First mention of Arun comes on the 28.02.90. No detail at all about where I’d find out about her, just a record of my first journey by train down to Guilford and the River Wey.

…yes, there was definitely something there […], life would be so very much easier, a shower, hot water, more space… I sat and listened, and in my minds-eye, she was already sold and I was planning… 28.02.90

Train down to Guilford to stand on the counter of a slow-moving narrowboat. This will be my boat. I know it! Slowly up the river, with every beat of the big single cylinder RN engine I’m more certain. Walk back along the muddy towpath from Shelford a foot above the ground  – I’m elated, so sure this is the boat I want, and determined to try to get it. 03.03.90

Reading the diary now, whilst it’s starting to clarifying some memories, is actually raising a load of other questions eg. this note on 12.03.90 says:

A cheque from the taxman, over £500.00 pays for the boat license for a year as demanded in the agreement with the Forward Trust to buy the new boat…

Who were the Forward Trust? I’ve no idea! Still, an agreement must have been made as by 18.03.90 the diary records:

Not even a year has passed since I made the first tentative held-breath steps, and shook hands on a boat, and on a future which promised huge changes, no safety net and a raw wonderful life. Today shake hands again, and buy the next chapter.

By 28.03.90 the boat had been successfully surveyed, Stan-the-Surveyor was impressed by her build quality and her superb and huge RN (Russell Newbury) Single.

(By a huge quirk of fate, many years later, in conversation with Pete Downer, who runs the moorings at Grimsbury Wharf in Banbury, I found out that Arun had been Pete’s first complete boat build when he ran Banbury Boatyard Services on land below the Town Lock in Banbury. The canal world really is a very small world indeed.)

I the following weeks, I read Jonathan Raban’s Old Glory and Coasting; and filled in a lot of loan application paperwork. Being a live-aboard boater make everything that little bit more difficult; a home mooring to find, insurance to get, a postal address to secure etc. After the cash deal that had sealed Lily Jane’s purchase the year before, buying Arun brought me sharply and suddenly back into the ‘real’ world with its inevitable demands of proof of identity and security for the loan.

The diary entry for 17.04.90 reads:

By train to Coventry, change, and on to Birmingham… ate lunch, killed time in bookshops – tense – the, quite suddenly an office, a welcome smile, sign on the dotted line, handshake and the deals done. Unbelievably after weeks of frustrating admin, everything’s ready to go, I’m about to own not one but two boats – FLEET!…

On 18.04.90 I begin to sort out the remaining details:

buy a map to navigate from the River Wey across the Thames to Brentford; take the train to Watford to secure the boat’s BW license; and in the evening head up the Regents in ‘Lily’ to St. Pancras Cruising Club for their Wednesday evening social. I’m hoping to moor ‘Lily’ in the basin there and these social Wednesdays are a pre-requisite to membership…

On 26.04.90

At Shalford we shake hands. The cheque arrived this morning, all’s well with the world. The owners linger reminiscing, all I wanted was to be alone with the boat. I’m hugely in debt. And, hugely happy!

27.04.90, I collect the boat with friends and we begin the journey back to Islington:

Fried breakfast at Kings Cross, then the long journey to Guilford. Bill, Giles and me. Taxi to the boat. I felt nervous, as I appreciate and value the views of these boat people. I respect their experience and their cutting wit and commentary. Reassuringly they admire the engine, the fit-out, it’s smiles all round, and our first brew. Steaming mugs of tea as we stand and admire the boat.

We set off down the Wey towards Guilford, I was content to let the other ‘play’ at the tiller. I stood on the gunwales and thought about the future.

The river was challenging and lovely. The locks’ ancient mechanisms severe. We stocked up on cans of beer [essential] and food [desirable] and ventured through the day, from pub to boat to towpath walk to pub.

Chilled when we finally called it a day, we mistakenly lit the cabin stove with kindling. We were soon broiling, intense heat, beer, good company, flushed by our day and tired we retired to bed early.

I lay awake in my new bunk. I couldn’t sleep, too excited, too happy.

(above) Coming down the River Wey, Arun is mine!

(above) ‘Captain of the Arun’ R. Thames nr. Teddington

(above) Yep, that’s Arun tucked under a large maintenance barge,  nr. Richmond

(above) Safely off the Thames, and coming up through Brentford

(above) an unfortunate photograph of a lovely moment, no I’m not throwing up!
This is me toasting the purchase of Arun with champagne at Little Venice…

And so began the second phase of my life afloat on London’s waterways.

The ever present threat of eviction gave an intensity and urgency to the time; there was a recklessness to our approach to life; we were hard working, but hard living too. The candle burned at both ends that hot, dry summer.

The boat community, clustered around the southern tunnel-mouth was my new village. This time it was a village afloat, with all the benefits, and the downsides of village life – from camaraderie and friendship – to the inevitable flare-up of occasional bitching and back-stabbing. We lived hand-in-glove with each other, we shared what we had, meals, drinks, time, expertise… It was a vivid time. A breathless rollercoaster of emotion and intense passion.

And, it was all so very short-lived.

On 12.05.90 we receive eviction notices from BW. MPs, councillors and actions groups all supported our arguments for a change in their approach to residential mooring. We decided to fight the eviction. And daily we’d vacillate from optimism to despair.

The morning of the writs, attached to every boat, eviction notices,a timescale set, a ticking clock and with it an odd elation, after weeks of phony war it’s finally happened, there’s almost a sense of relief or release around the mooring, and a powerful sense of community, everyone out, everyone talking to everyone else papers in hand. We’re in this together.

We started collecting signatures; the Evening Standard came down and interviewed boaters; there was a crisis meeting at the local Narrowboat pub, and heady talk of injunctions, publicity shots and PR. The Frog Lane Association of Boaters (FLAB) was formed and we commited to the fight.

On 19.05.90 we achieved a supportive half page article in, of all places, the Daily Telegraph.

Over subsequent weeks we brewed endless mugs of tea, informal meetings merged into further meetings. I bought an old bike. Everyone rushed around. We all held down responsible jobs, we weren’t the shiftless water-gypsies that opponents attempted to portray us as; as resident on the moorings were nurses, teachers, lawyers, a Director of CAB, actors, artists, and retirees. It was a wonderfully eclectic mix.

It was a time of brinksmanship and politic-ing, as BW wrote making divisive offers to move us on to other long term mooring sites. It seemed they were not against the idea of residential moorings in principle, just again us having them right there and right then in Islington!

We linked up  with a BBC producer. He was interested in making a documentary, and on 27.05.90, a small fleet of narrowboats took him from Islington through Camden to Little Venice. He had an enjoyable jolly but sadly there was no documentary and no return for the campaign.

(above) …with the BBC Producer, Camden Locks…

Despite the public show of solidarity behind the scenes people, by necessity, made their own contingency plans. After all, the boats for all their picturesque attractiveness were, first and foremost, our homes. I dismantled my ‘fleet’ and on 07.06.90 moved old  Lily Jane to St. Pancras Yacht Basin.

Despite positive feedback about the campaign and a growing petition against eviction, on 19.06.90 four week eviction notices arrived.

…anger, frustration, above all fear, of the unknown, of breaking up the community, we’re so small to fight a national organisation, we’ve the heart but not the funds…

The diary describes how I pretty much spent all my free time campaigning and sitting in endless meeting, and occasionally working on the paintings I still hoped would lead to an MA in Fine Art.

On 01.07.90, in an attempt to drum up positive local support to counter the slurs put about by other residents living in expensive Noel Road, we organised the ‘FLAB Open Day’ (that is ‘The Frog Lane Association of Boaters Open Day’). A day of open boats and shining brasses, of BBQs and bright balloons and many, many people, lots of them local families saying how much safer the towpath felt knowing the boaters were there.

Symbolically Lily, languishing at St. Pancras, had begun to sink. There are hints in many entries in the diary of sudden trips to the yacht basin to pump her out, and endless anxiety over what to do with her.

On 03.08.90 I escaped the frenetic siege mentality of the mooring for a while.

Rightly or wrongly I felt a powerful need to escape. We’d been granted an injunction, a stay of execution, and the window of opportunity wasn’t one to be missed.

I turned over Arun’s glorious single cylinder engine, and temporarily left London.

Friends Dan and Anita shared part of the journey out of London with me. On 03.8.90 I reached Copper Mill Lock; on 04.08.90 through Rickmansworth, Watford, Hunton Bridge to moor at the Rising Sun in Berkhamstead; on 05.08.90 reached Soulby Three Locks. Dan and Anita rejoined me at the bottom of the Stoke Bruerne flight and then accompanied me through the late summer drought, and falling levels, to the top of the Long Buckby flight where I was forced to leave the boat. Tthe Leicester arm wasn’t open to navigation. My dream of reaching Derbyshire endeded there and then. And Long Buckby was as far as I got that last summer.

An old mate Kev joined me for the return trip to London, we left Long Buckby on 19.08.90.

The now familiar mooring spots at Stoke Bruerne, Three Locks, Marsworth, Berkhamstead, and the Fisherman’s Rest at Copper Mill.

Finally, Arun and I returned to the mooring and the battle to prevent eviction on 29.08.90.

Following the Summer injunction the battle to save the moorings had became a muted, background affair. The meetings stillregularly took place, people continued to make contingency plans, but generally life on the boats went on as normally as it could, with ‘toilet runs’ to Kings Cross, with candles and paraffin, with twpath afternoons cutting wood for the stives; there were many shared meals and shared evenings talking too, a general feeling that we all needed to enjoy the time left before it was taken from us.

On the 25.09.90 we had a very unproductive meeting with Islington council, slippery pole, nail in coffin. Autumnal melancholy.

Through early October BW began to impound boats. Every day there was the wait for the BW tug to arrive. We arranged a key rota, ensuring that there was always someone on the mooring able to ‘squat’ a boat if it looked likely one was to be taken. It was not longer a sustainable way to live. Particularly when on 15.10.90 BW refused to renew our licenses whilst we stayed fighting for the mooring.

We’d effectively been blacklisted.

It felt like, and in fact proved to be the end of the line. On 18.10.90 FLAB was wound up. And, for me, things began to happen rapidly. By the 23.10.90 joined by another mate Jim, I was captaining Arun out of London for the last time, and pursuing a 5x day run to the Midlands, in honour of the old working boats. We headed for Sawley, for handover to an agent, and to selling up, a boat and a way of life.

It’d be four years before circumstances would again allow me to own a boat.

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