Move to Wivenhoe
Wivenhoe is a quaint old shipbuilding town set around a picturesque quayside where boats dry out on the mud and there is a two-hour window come high tide to make your way out to the estuary to the cruising delights beyond.
My wife Jane and I decided to downsize from our four-bedroom home in Saffron Walden to a two-bedroom apartment in Wivenhoe, pay off a chunk of mortgage and live happily ever after. The smaller mortgage was welcome, but a garden, however small, was sorely missed. Soon after making the move to this beautiful riverside town we met Andy, who told us about his boat moored on the Colne. “It doesn’t go anywhere, but it’s my outside space”, he told us.
Our friends Neil and Angela came to visit. Neil asked me if I was going to get a boat now that we were living by the water. “No,” I answered. “I don’t have the money for one, and besides, I don’t know the first thing about boats.” Neil thought for a moment, picked up his phone and wandered off. A few minutes later he returned.
“Right,” he said. “I’ve got you a boat. It belongs to my father who can’t look after it any longer. It’s in St Neots, so you’ll have to find a way of bringing it to Wivenhoe, and it’s in a bit of a state, but it’s free.”
I remembered Andy’s ‘garden’, and thought “why not?” I could do the same. I could grow plants on it and it can become the garden that we were lacking.
So, some days later and full of enthusiasm, I went with Neil to see my new acquisition in its mooring 80 miles away. We climbed down the riverbank on a cold and damp winter’s morning where I first glimpsed what I can only describe as a floating wreck. My heart sank and I feverishly began to think of how I could politely turn down the kind offer.
The sun came out from behind a cloud, a swan glided gracefully across the water, and my attitude changed that instant. Ron (Neil’s dad) and I shook hands, and I became the proud owner of A Boat For My Potplants, officially registered as ‘Kingfisher’, a 23ft ex-hire boat from the Norfolk Broads. It was probably state-of-the-art back in its 1970’s heyday, now just a sad sight, damp and smelly. But it had a fibreglass hull, so that was a good start. After all, how difficult could it be to splash a bit of paint here and there and restore Kingfisher to its former glory? A couple of weekends spent in St Neots and it’ll be done, or so I thought.
Neil’s dad was keen for me to remove my new acquisition as soon as possible, so I made enquiries about getting the boat towed downriver (there was no working motor) to the local marina. My plan was to keep it there for a couple of weeks while I sorted out the external renovation, and then somehow get it to Wivenhoe. Andy from the marina came and towed the boat up the river with Neil and me on board. I was filled with excitement, but also much trepidation. What on earth had I signed up to? Even with the work completed I still didn’t have anywhere in Wivenhoe to put it.
Mooring for me
Around Christmas time my wife and I met a local couple, Brian and Jane, who offered us their mooring outside the Rose & Crown pub on the quayside in Wivenhoe. I was euphoric – I now had somewhere to bring the boat, and a prime position it was too.
Travelling to St Neots was taking its toll so I asked the Wivenhoe Sailing Club if they had room for me and my boat. They politely declined but they gave me the number of Paul at the Alresford Creek Boat Owners’ Association (ACBOA) who told me “We’ll find you somewhere near the boatsheds where you can work. We’ve got electricity too. Just get your boat over and we’ll set it on some blocks for you.”
Paul’s words were music to my ears. I asked Andy from the St Neots marina how I could get the boat to Alresford Creek. “I’ll tow it on the back of my Jag for a few quid,” he suggested. I accepted his offer and arranged to meet him early one cold February morning at the Alresford Creek boat sheds, where Paul from ACBOA was also waiting with his tractor to help position the boat on to blocks – without a crane. I stood and watched the impossible become the possible, with a few levers strategically placed here and there.
That was in February 2010, and from that moment on I spent every possible day over at the sheds, teaching myself how to repair, renovate and repaint a boat, in the hope of injecting some new life into Kingfisher. It was then that I’d discovered by scraping underneath ‘Kingfisher’, the boat’s previous name had been ‘Solace’.
Cap in hand
On the advice of my cousin Hilary, shortly after acquiring the boat I had started a blog, ‘A Boat For My Potplants’, to document my progress with the renovation.
Following one particularly embarrassing incident in which I attended a wedding with a paint-stained ear after a morning shift working on the boat, I wrote about the story on my blog, and it was recounted in the local Essex Life magazine that had begun following my antics. When I read the article back I noticed it had mentioned the name of the paint used, Dulux, twice. So I contacted them and asked very nicely if they could spare any paint for me, preferably some primer, undercoat and gloss. “Would ten litres of each be enough?” came the response. It certainly would be, thank you very much!
But I knew paint was not enough on its own to protect the boat from the elements. One window was broken and all the seals were perished. I found there was a skill to this job that I did not possess, but the local Colchester Motor Glass company, owned by another Andy, certainly did. He loved the boat, and would be happy to rip out the old rubbers and replace them with new, and I’d only have to pay for the materials. I wouldn’t have got that sort of service from any national company. Of course I made sure to give him a big thumbs up on my blog – that was the least I could do.
And as for the canopy, well, it let in more water than it kept out. It was ripped to shreds and wouldn’t last much longer. I got in touch with Ipswich-based Sail & Cover Ltd, and a lady called Sarah turned up to assess the job. I think she recognised some of her own craziness in me and offered to make me a new canopy made up of old fabric off-cuts of various colours for a very round figure. Good fortune was certainly on my side.
With the externals now more or less taken care of, the next challenge was to get Kingfisher towed to its mooring outside the pub in Wivenhoe, a couple of miles away.
The incredible people of ACBOA swung into action once more. Paul manoeuvred the boat off the blocks and onto a trailer, which he hitched to his tractor, Tony rowed out to slip a line through a buoy. Neil (who’s dad had given me the boat) came and sat on the deck with me, waiting for the tide to rise until we were afloat.
We pulled on the rope until we were mid-river. Then, with military timing (crucial on the tidal Colne), Gerry from Wivenhoe arrived on his boat with its 90hp motor and towed us along the river.
The weather couldn’t have been better that July day as we came ‘home’, to be met by around 5000 friends (maybe a slight exaggeration there) and onlookers on the quay. We tied up, and I brought out the AstroTurf that I’d bought from B&Q that morning, and placed it on the top deck, followed by two empty wooden planters that had been made especially for me and our new garden.
The containers didn’t remain empty for long. One by one people walked the plank and handed me their gifts of potted plants. Within minutes I really did have a Boat For My Potplants adorned with a selection of geraniums and pansies.
With our mooring in such a prime position we were often welcoming friends aboard for drinks and, with music supplied via my amplifier, record player and speakers, I needed 220 volts to power them.
I got in touch with an old contact, Andy at RoadPro, and asked if he knew what parts I needed. A couple of weeks later I received a solar panel, leisure battery, regulator and inverter, and my friend Martyn, who ran the bar at the Royal British Legion, and was also an electrician, came to help me fit it all.
Unfortunately my electrical configuration wouldn’t handle the surges required by power tools so I decided a cordless machine would be better. Buoyed by my recent success, I went to my local B&Q, explained the boat’s story to the duty manager, and secured a complimentary drill and sander.
Armed with my new tools, I worked away on the boat’s interior, stripping out the cabin bulkheads to make the living area more spacious and rebuilding the galley, with the help of another local, Mark. One boat improvement that I’m particularly proud of is the lowering of the floor so that I can stand comfortably at the galley drinks cabinet and hand out glasses to our guests sitting up on the rear deck enjoying the music and the pub’s ambience from just a few feet away. It’s all about priorities.
A generous gift
Wivenhoe is a very sociable village, often described as “a small drinking village with a large fishing problem”, and I fear that Jane and I haven’t helped. It was during a magnificent fireworks display, organised by the Wivenhoe Ocean Racing Club (so-named, despite there being no ocean, nor racing), that we invited some of the people gathered on the quayside aboard, and one of them asked me if we could go out on the river for a picnic the following summer.
I explained that it was impossible as the boat had no engine, and two days later that same person handed me a cheque for £1000 towards the cost. “This is for next year’s picnic,” she said.
That January, with my £1000 ready, I went to the London Boat Show to buy an outboard but after the third or fourth time of being told “try eBay”, I concluded my budget wouldn’t stretch to even half a motor.
A couple of days later I was pondering what to do when I decided I would write politely to the engine manufacturers asking if I could purchase a secondhand or ex-demo engine from them for £1000. I had nothing to lose.
The very next day I received an email from Suzuki’s marketing manager Gareth. “Thanks for brightening up what was panning out to be a fairly dull morning. I am sure we can do something,” it read.
I visited the Suzuki offices in Milton Keynes with a dream motor in mind: 10hp, long-shaft, electric start, and remote steering. Assistance with fitting by a local dealer would be great, and a warranty would top things off. I came out the meeting and metaphorically punched the air. All my boxed had been ticked.
The motor was fitted at the Suzuki dealer in nearby Brightlingsea, and I had help at the helm to bring Kingfisher back to Wivenhoe. Despite the river journey being very choppy and a storm threatening, just as we reached my mooring, the wind dropped, the water calmed and the sun came out. The new motor purred like a kitten and we came in and tied up.
Learning to handle
With my lack of boating experience, my nautical neighbours John, Mike and Paul offered to take me out for free handling lessons.
However my first lesson wasn’t a great success. The difficulty was finding a time when one of my tutors would be available, the wind being relatively calm and the tide right. Being on a tidal river meant that the latter condition is crucial. On the first try we were waiting to cast off and we sat and waited, and sat and waited some more. The tide came in, the boat barely floated, and the tide went straight out again.
A week later all the elements aligned, and we went out. Of course I was more than a bit anxious to not hit John’s magnificent hundred-year-old sailing boat when I came back in to berth, but not being very familiar with the motor controls we went fast forward instead of slow reverse. Thankfully John was there to fend us off, otherwise I don’t know what would have happened.
The experience taught me a lesson though; whatever happens on my boat is my responsibility. The buck stops with me, and I’d better learn as much as I can about the river and the elements. The river is to be enjoyed, for sure, but it’s to be respected too.
It was a wonderful feeling though, steering my own boat with its new motor, which all happened thanks to a few words written on the Internet, a bit of positive energy and the goodwill of the people I met.
After my good fortune I really wanted to give something back to the community of Wivenhoe. Back in 2007, I had been invited to join my mate Mark Wesley on his radio show as part of a week’s broadcasting from one of the original pirate vessels, moored off the coast of Harwich, to commemorate the pre-Radio One days. I was to be his on-air sidekick, Barnacle Bill, reading out dedications and requests and generally joining in the banter with him, and we enjoyed every second. This gave me an idea.
Over a pint with Mark I suggested that we repeat our broadcasting experience on board my boat – this time it being The Barnacle Bill Show, with special guest Mark Wesley. “Don’t suck me into one of your hair-brained ideas,” I remember Mark saying that evening as he slurred into his beer glass.
But the seed had been well and truly sown. So while I was busy with all the other aspects of the boat’s renovation, in the back of my mind I hatched a plan to do “The World’s Smallest Pirate Radio Station”. Using my iPod and tiny FM transmitter I would broadcast a radio show from the boat to the people sitting at the pub’s tables just a few feet away on the quayside, and generate some money for the Wivenhoe British Legion fund. I contacted Jerry from Radio Wivenhoe, who agreed to help with the legalities and technicalities and in return I would put a big banner for his radio station on the side of the boat. I publicised it on my blog so that people could listen online and I decided to
let people choose their own music from a selection of my cherished vinyl 45’s, charging for each request.
Once again help came from many sources – Dave from the pub paid for the transistor radios, and Martyn from the British legion offered to do live interviews as people selected their tunes.
On the day there were hundreds of people gathered on the quay and at the British legion building. Requests came in from far and wide by text and email – Paul in Spain wanted a Billy Idol song, and Kate in Minneapolis requested The Who. Larry from Buffalo wanted a Phil Collins track for his wife Jackie, and Deborah from London wanted Sparks.
For me the most bizarre moment was when I was in full flow with turntable and microphone and I looked up at the crowd on the quay, and then at my mother who had decided to squeeze herself down the Houdini hatch with a glass of wine in one hand and a cigarette in the other, walk through the cabin and out of the rear deck.
All in all, it was a mad evening. It raised £150 for The Legion. I just remember saying as we were packing up “The next time I get a bright idea, somebody please talk me out of it!”
But that is the magic of ‘A Boat For My Potplants’. Anything can happen, and quite often it does.
Gorilla In The Midst
That magic didn’t stop. Every year Wivenhoe gardeners open up their horticultural spaces to the public, and the sale of maps helps raise funds for local good causes, including the church restoration fund. I was invited to include my boat, but I wanted to display more than just a few flowers on top of its deck. Someone suggested having a large resin animal, and I thought “Why not – that’s sounds perfectly reasonable.”
I found a stockiest of a wide selection of different animals, and my favourite was the gorilla. But it had a huge price-tag, much more than I could afford. Remembering my successful blagging from the recent renovation, I asked if I could temporarily adopt the gorilla for the duration of the Open Gardens weekend – and the lovely Mill Race Garden Centre agreed, just so long as I returned it intact.
Next I needed plants, and lots of them, preferably tall and jungle-like. B&Q very kindly obliged with a large assortment that I could borrow. And with good luck in abundance, just at the time Jane and I were setting up our display on the boat, contractors were replacing all the Rose & Crown’s hanging window-box displays, including loads of shrubs and flowers. They gave us as many as we wanted.
With a white picket fence added to the boat for good measure, I believe our garden would have won all the prizes going had it been a competition. However, that wasn’t my incentive. My greatest prize was to be included on the guest list – as were all participants – to the vicar’s garden tea party. What fun!
I’d become a writer! But not by myself. I had the help, guidance and friendship from a proper writer, not just a wannabee like me.
David Roberts, author of Rock Atlas, Rock Chronicles, biographies of Paul Rodgers (singer with seventies rock gods Free and Bad Company, and Stephen Stills (one quarter of CSN&Y). He was also editor at Guinness Publishing for Hit Singles and Hit Albums. He knew a thing or two about writing – and here I was, lucked out, to have him as my mentor, editor, collaborator – and even cover designer on my two books Muddy Water and Florida Key. The third novel, Mr. Tap, has been put on hold due to the Coronovirus pandemic, but I’m sure it’s going to raise its head before too long.
When I first met David, I invited him on my boat, named at the time Los Amigos. “Let’s have a drink together, discuss writing, have a drink and some food, maybe listen to some music,” I suggested. The warm summer’s evening proved conducive to all those activities, so much so that much wine was drunk, our bellies became full, and the stereo was cranked up. We did talk a little about writing but not a lot. “We’d better meet again next week and get some writing work done,” he suggested.
Our ‘Book Club’ for two became a regular weekly event that has lasted for five years plus.
Must be moving on
We’d had so much fun with The Boat For My Potplants. I’d changed its name from Kingfisher to Los Amigos, as a toffing of my hat to Mi Amigo, the Radio Caroline pirate ship. Counter to popular believe, no bad luck followed. I’d say good luck, in the form of an unexpected offer received out of the blue. “Have you considered selling your boat, and if so for how much?”
No, I hadn’t. But everything has a price, especially at a time when Jane and I had recently bought a place in France (now The Writer’s Retreat) that needed lots of work. Hmm, I pondered. We’ve had great times with the boat – maybe it’s in the stars to move on and let someone else take over. When the potential new owner said we could continue using the boat, I couldn’t resist her offer, and a deal was done.
By now, the new owner also became a character in my book ‘Muddy Water’ that I’d been writing on the boat, and I saw it as a nice gesture to alter the boat’s name yet again, this time to her character’s name, ‘Miss Baudet’. In fact Miss Baudet went on to play a central role in each subsequent novel, ‘Florida Key’ and ‘Mr. Tap’ being written in the Writer’s Retreat in France, the small townhouse finished from the proceeds of my old boat.
But I digress. The main point is that every single day that I walked past the newly named Miss Baudet, my heart broke a little more. I really missed it. So when, three years later the real Miss Baudet asked whether I’d like to buy the boat back, I leapt at the chance. Like before, a deal was done and I can wear my Captain’s hat once again.
I don’t take the boat out very much. Only four times in total. The truth is I’m not a natural seafarer – the thought of all those ropes and ties, engine prepping and tide-watching fills me with dread and fear. Despite receiving countless offers from experienced kind locals only too glad to lend a helping hand, I feel much safer tucked inside the cabin or the rear deck with my laptop, bashing out words for my books.
In May of 2019, I invited a group of VIPs, including the Mayor and his wife from the French village where we have The Writer’s Retreat, to come to Wivenhoe. By coincidence, their visit was on the same weekend as the Wivenhoe Open Gardens. This year my garden’s theme was a menagerie, including crocodile, elephant and flamingo. I gave the French delegation a tour of the whole village, and when we stopped at the Rose & Crown quayside to view the river, I noticed the Mayor’s expression of wonderment as he clocked the Boat For My Potplants. Or perhaps it was bewilderment.
In 2020 the world turned upside down with the Covid pandemic. Wivenhoe Open Gardens was cancelled, but a virtual alternative took place with gardeners showing their displays online. With lockdown causing many grim faces around the village, I tried to do my bit to bring a few smiles to faces by creating another horticultural display. This time just some flowers, and a singing bird, as one might expect.
With the launch of my third novel, Mr. Tap, on hold until restrictions ease and vaccinations administered to create a safer world, Miss Baudet has been my sanctuary where I’ve toiled away doing what I love best. Writing and playing music. Not an instrument I confess, just my records powered by the large solar panel stuck to the top deck, all very easy during the warm climes of summer and autumn.
But when the news around Christmas turned gloomier than ever, it was time for me to add another display. Santa and Richard Reindeer (Rudolph was otherwise engaged) lived a couple of weeks on top of the boat.
I don’t know what the locals thought of the display, but I hope it went a little way to cheering them up during the most difficult times many of us have ever experienced.
And now, with a little luck and the fair winds behind me, in 2021 and beyond I hope to continue having exciting times with The Boat For My Potplants, aka Miss Baudet, formerly Los Amigos, formerly Kingfisher, formerly Solace.
As our world slowly returns to some kind of normality, I hope to continue writing aboard, continue having Book Club meetings, perhaps making some podcasts, maybe doing another pirate radio show, letting other writers experience the inspirational free spirit that the boat gives (see here), and Writer’s Workshops (here).
Slowly slowly, steady at the helm.
Alfonso the second – My beautiful poor man’s classic.
– not quite a Ferrari, but just as much fun… here is my 1968 Fiat 124 AC Sport Coupe, 1400cc, 4-speed manual…
This is Alfonso The Second. Alfonso The First was bought by me after I passed my driving test in 1978 at the age of nineteen. Against the better and wiser judgement of my father who advised me to get ‘something sensible’ like a Ford Anglia or Austin 1100, I went ahead and bought a red 1972 Fiat 124 BC Sport Coupe 1600.
It was a heap of shite and was continuously breaking down, overheating and keeping me poor. But I loved it and vowed one day to get a decent example of this Italian beauty when I became old and wise like my father had been back in ’78.
Twenty years later my heart missed a beat when I saw an ad for this 1968 AC Coupe for sale in Pontefract, Yorkshire. It was three thousand notes which I couldn’t afford, but luckily my flexible friend had enough elasticity on it to help me out, and now more than ten years later I still get as excited about owning him (or is it her, or it?) as I did back then.
Of course, being a Fiat, he needs some tender loving care to keep him in good health, and he has indeed needed to go to the car hospital on one or two occasions. But all in all, he’s a joy to live with.
Whenever our finances become a little, er, problematic with cash-flow, it is suggested that ‘you can always sell the old car’. Shock, horror! No, no, no. He’s not just any old car – he’s part of the family.
These following pictures show some of the little quirks that the Fiat has. Individually they are special. Collectively they make up far more than just a car. It’s all in the detail…
…like the wooden steering wheel…and the Fiat mud flaps that could do with a little clean up…and shiny hub caps set off nicely by the newly painted wheels to match the bodywork…I like the small indicator lights on the front wings…
and of course the historic Fiat badge on the bonnet (that’s the hood if you’re American)…lovely dashboard instruments with switches for illuminating the dials (don’t forget to switch off otherwise the battery will be flat in the morning), and a knob to vary the intensity, a knob to turn down the ‘on’ light (why?), and a switch for the windscreen wipers (that’s my favourite one to play with)…
…the Javelin MW and LW radio that still works, with a loud crackle when turning it on (it would still be working if the mechanic who fixed the seized engine hadn’t disconnected it for some unknown reason)…and where would we be without the state of the art means of hearing music in those days – the eight-track cartridge player? Admittedly every one of the tapes I found in the boot (that’s the trunk if you’re American) sounds awful, but I don’t care…
…wind-up windows are so much better than electric. You can get them precisely right…the map reading light above the speaker grill…the door lever has a lovely firm clunk…and for rear passengers there are reading lights on each side…and coat-hooks for the Italian leather jacket…thankfully the rear ashtray has never been introduced to a cigarette…now here is a beautiful design…
…the rear window can be opened just enough to cool down the lady, without spoiling her hair…the arm-rests in the rear are perfectly angled for maximum comfort…the wonderful heater and de-mister controls in between the front seats are perfectly positioned to adjust by the driver…how brilliant! Quarterlight windows that can be opened just enough to let in a small breeze, without spoiling my hair…and the perfect ‘ping’ sounds just right as the clasp shuts tight…
…they didn’t need to make the seat-back adjuster in chrome, but it’s rather nice that they did…the seats are not quite leather, and they tend to get very hot, but that’s not usually a problem in English weather, although once it got so hot that the veneer trim split and I had to make a new piece with some leather piping…and it’s something of an art to reduce the manual choke by just the right amount at the right time…
…I sometimes wish I could be on the passenger side, so that I could see my smiling face in the vanity mirror…another light, this one above the rear-view mirror, a design classic. The ventilator can swivel to push the air in any direction, so long as you remember to adjust the slider control below…always a comfort to see there’s enough benzina for a journey of fifty miles or so, a relief to see the acqua is under the red, and that the olio is circulating as it should.
The pictures above are the reasons why I’m in love with Alfonso The Second! The pictures below are more reasons why I’m still in love with Alfonso The Second…
…here we are on Wivenhoe Quay…in front of A Boat For My Potplants…being a Fiat, the bodywork sometimes needs attention…especially the wheel arches…it’s nice to drive to the farm-shop…and then take the dog out to Mersea Island…
I’m afraid I’m not much of a mechanic, and I never much like venturing too far just in case I break down. It’s happened a couple of times during the past 18 years and the AA covered me pretty well. Even so, it’s still one of my fears. So when my mate Simon approached me to take part in a classic car drive to the ‘Laon Historique’ in France, I tried to think of every reason I could to get out of it. Simon and his bunch were a persuasive lot, and with the help of another mate Ian who said he’d prepare the car, I reluctantly agreed to take part in the drive. It was from Harwich across to the Hook of Holland, then down through the Netherlands, Belgium and into northern France – and back after three nights.
I’m so glad I did it. My sister Jane accompanied me, and Ian with his son remained the whole way behind us in their Nissan Z. Alfonso The Second did me proud – he performed brilliantly the whole way there and only skipped a beat once on the way home – but nothing major – Ian fixed it in less than 5 minutes.
I’ve got it out my system now. It was an incredible experience for me – but never again, as it was too grating for my nerves. I get equal enjoyment in Alfonso The Second just popping to Tesco’s.
Or to Wivenhoe House just up the road…