Having moved all of our gear from our previous yacht Pindimara to our new yacht Elizabeth, it was time to beef up her systems to get her ready for the long trip from England to Australia. We unpacked everything and put it all away, finding that, because of the ducting for the heating system, 39′ Elizabeth had much less storage space than 34′ Pindimara.
Still, we got it all in, removed the TV and sound system to make space for food and tools, upgraded the elderly batteries, and checked all the subsystems to ensure that they were fit for purpose.
I spent a relaxed sunny afternoon threading child-friendly safety nets, and an inordinate amount of time in my shipping-container workshop, expanding the ridiculously small Euro-sized fibreglass gas cupboard to fit a standard LPG canister.
…and sometimes, we even went sailing!
We took Elizabeth to Cowes to repair a dent where somebody had rudely rammed her in the marina, and took the opportunity to get my expanded gas cabinet properly installed, and to do the antifouling. We also discovered that the occasional alarming prop shudder that we’d experienced was down to, uh, the propeller being so fractured that is wasn’t really attached to the boat at all. It’s a mystery how it had stayed on the shaft all this time.
Meanwhile, in the real world, my gardening business had reached a point where I needed to take on occasional staff in order to grow. Some tasks, such as my favourite job of fencing, really benefit from a second set of hands. Unfortunately, England was going through a backlash against the perceived threats of the “gig economy” and “zero hours contracts”, and there was all kinds of legislation coming in against what normal people would call piece-work. Since gardening is not only seasonal but weather-dependent, it makes no sense to pay an employee on days when neither of us are working, but that was the direction in which the legislation was heading.
The other option would be to take on a proper permanent employee or apprentice, but in order to make that financially viable, I would then need to buy a second van and a second set of equipment, which in turn would necessitate a bank loan. My financials supported such a plan, but then I would be looking at settling down for another few years to double my customer base and provide my staff with a stable working environment, with a view to leaving them to run the business when we finally took Elizabeth cruising to Australia… but in reality this approach was fraught with issues. Where would I find this mysteriously unemployed paragon of expertise and virtue? Once trained up, would they want to take on the responsibility, or would I need to start again with somebody else? How long, seriously, would it take to pay off the loan while simultaneously paying a full-time wage?
We also needed to consider that we were currently living in inexpensive student accommodation while Bronwyn studied Archaeology; this was not a permanent arrangement, and could we afford to rent a regular house in this area, and bring up a child, while simultaneously reducing our business income?
And then there was the health question. I had originally switched from computer work to gardening in an attempt to curb increasingly painful carpal tunnel and upper body pain caused by endless hours hunched over a desk, and in that sense, the career move had proven to be a winning combination. My nerve sheaths were no longer inflamed, my posture had greatly improved, and my core strength had increased dramatically. I felt really great.
Now as I entered my 52nd year and my third Winter as a gardener, I found myself running into new difficulties. Much of my work involved holding heavy vibrating machinery extended at waist- or shoulder-level. New nerve damage flared up all across my shoulders, neck and arms, swiftly turning to permanent chronic pain. I began eating Codeine tablets like sweets, and screaming loudly to drown out the pain as I tackled simple jobs like hedging. I started to take a rest-day in the middle of the week, but that wasn’t going to support any kind of business expansion. The pain spread, and became the permanent and debilitating misery of fibromyalgia.
And finally, although Berrima loved living on the boat and sailing, we had never been out with her in a blow, or in any situation where one or the other of us was not able to take care of her. We know a number of cruising families, and have read a lot of cruising books, but had so far not found the answer to the simple question: What do you do with a small child when the situation necessitates “all adult hands on deck”?
We sat down with some families that had done it, and pinned them down to the answer that we had always suspected, but never acknowledged to ourselves. You tie the child to the bunk below, go up on deck, and try to ignore the screaming.
Now we’ve met quite a number of kids that have grown up afloat, and without exception they have been marvellous, well-adjusted people. The benefits of cruising the world clearly far outweigh the unhappiness of being forced to wait below while your parents deal with Important Stuff that, frankly, shouldn’t happen too often on a well-run voyage. But still, we found ourselves unable to countenance it.
So there it was. Reality check. I was getting too old for physical labour, political and economic realities were getting in the way of growing our UK business, we wanted our daughter to grow up in Australia, and we found (somewhat to our surprise) that we had deep misgivings about sailing there with a child so young.
It was a big decision, but we made it. Bronwyn gave up her degree, we closed the business, sold Elizabeth, and moved to an IT contract on the other side of the world.
We were happily living on our yacht Elizabeth at our berth on the Hamble, running a local gardening business and bringing up our four-month-old daughter Berrima aboard. It was a lovely marina, and the staff were great; when Bronwyn was pregnant, they even used to get up early and sweep the snow from the pontoons. There was a nice bar at the marina, and good shops and pubs within an easy walk across the fields.
Then Bronwyn was given the opportunity to study Archaeology in Winchester, and we were offered family accommodation on campus. I could run the gardening business equally well from there, and Bronwyn could take advantage of the campus day-care and walk to lectures, so we moved off the boat and on to dry land. Elizabeth was still just down the road, though, and we still got the opportunity to sail on the Solent at weekends.
As the winter months drew in, gardening work tailed off and I was offered a short IT contract in the UK Midlands. I commuted up and down the country, staying in hotels in the week, and returning at weekends. Then Bronwyn also got offered a short contract at the same site. There began a complicated dance of baby-sitting, with several kind people weighing in to help us out at our hotel in Telford; thanks to Gisela, Julia, Phil and Di for all your efforts!
In the meantime, it didn’t make any financial sense to keep Elizabeth on her powered berth on the Hamble, so we moved her onto a pontoon at Shamrock Quay on the River Itchen in Southampton, where she could sit quietly while we worked in the Midlands and took time off to finish decorating our property in Uruguay.
When we returned to her in early 2016, poor Elizabeth was looking very shabby indeed. A winter sitting in the damp of the river near to some overhanging trees had encouraged a great deal of unwelcome growth on the decks.
Thankfully, as part of my gardening business I had a powerful jet-wash, and after a couple of day’s work I got her presentable again. And then it was time to go sailing.
The pontoon in central Southampton was inconvenient for Winchester, and we weren’t too impressed with the algal growth from the river, so we looked around for somewhere else to keep Elizabeth. Eventually we settled on Yarmouth, on the Isle of Wight, just a short ferry journey from Hythe which was accessible by train. There was also a car ferry if we needed it, and most importantly, it was wonderfully inexpensive.
We installed Elizabeth on a free-floating pontoon close to the ferry terminal, and started moving our cruising gear aboard. It was time to set her up for ocean cruising.
While fitting out our previous boat, Pindimara, for cruising, we always had to keep in mind that we would have to sell her when we ran out of money at the end of the voyage. This restricted the modifications that we could make, and every change to her structure had to be reversible. It worked out well for us; once we’d removed all of her cruising gear, Pindimara looked pretty much like any standard weekend cruiser, albeit with rather over-specified running gear. The agent was delighted to handle a yacht in such pristine condition.
With Elizabeth, we’re not constrained to keeping her ‘standard’. She’s already over ten years old, and by the time we think about selling her – if we ever do – she’ll be old and hoary enough that nobody will expect her to look like the catalogue.
But that’s all in the future. To begin with, it’s time to get rid of all the equipment that really isn’t us, and which in our opinion is just taking up valuable space. The two previous owners have already made some thoughtful and well-executed changes, but some of them are more suitable for a marina-based caravan than for an ocean cruiser. For instance, one entire shelf was taken up with a flat screen TV and associate aerial paraphernalia, and another locker was filled with video and amplification equipment. We like music as well as the next person, but a five-speaker sound-surround takes up a lot of valuable storage space…
We also discarded a loudly ticking brass clock which was keeping me awake, and some expensive gimballed paraffin lamps which looked great, but made us nervous as we couldn’t ever foresee a scenario where we might want to have naked flames at sea.
In idle moments, I have been sketching designs for the conversion of the forepeak into a more practical seagoing cabin with ample storage, and of the ‘sofa-like’ lounge furniture into something that can work as a sea-berth. We also need to install a proper fridge suitable for 12 volt operation in the tropics, because the standard cavernous Frigiboat is only really useful under shore power.
Out on deck, we are more than happy with the existing modifications, such as extra cleats and cars, a sunshade and a cockpit cover, an extending wooden cockpit table, and some rather neat glass doors at the top of the companionway.
The gas locker, though, is set up for a single 2.72kg camping canister. Even though there’s ample space under the bulkhead, Bavaria have explicitly moulded the inside of the locker so that the more standard large bottles won’t fit, and we are forced to use the more expensive tiny camping variety. Our local chandler is of the opinion that there’s a conspiracy between the European yacht manufacturers and the gas company Calor… be that as it may, that’s one job that needs sorting.
The voyages of our previous boat, Pindimara, were at least partly a test to see if this was a lifestyle that we might want to embrace later in life. Regular readers of this blog will know that we found that it agreed with us rather well, and even though the practicalities of our post-cruise finances meant that we had to temporarily return to the corporate world, we began to plan ahead for our permanent retirement from the rat race.
It took a few years to arrange affairs to our satisfaction, and family matters meant that we were constrained to stay for a while in the UK. However, we finally quit our jobs in the city, and slowly segued into a different pace of life. Bronwyn started a new degree course which should enable her to find outdoor maritime work as we cruise, and I began a local gardening company which brings in just enough cash for us to eat and to pay the marina fees, while getting me fit and out into the sunshine. At the same time, our daughter Berrima was born, and for a while we dropped out of public ken, overwintering on Elizabeth and concentrating on bringing up a child and building the new business.
Both our daughter and our business are now nearly five months old. One is starting to show intelligent interest in the world, and the other has for the first time turned a profit. I finally took a day off to do nothing but lounge on deck and play with Berrima, and felt the muse take me to update our blog.
We have been understandably busy and haven’t really spent much time working on the boat, but on the other hand we are taking a long view. We can’t set sail for good until Bronwyn finishes her degree, and in any case we want Berrima to be old enough to be comfortable on her sea-legs. This gives us a three-year window to get everything ready, and then the plan is to spend a year or two cruising around the Mediterranean, cross over to the Caribbean, and then finally cross the pond to Australia.
In the meantime, one of the downsides of living with a pre-toddler is that despite our best intentions, the interior of our yacht resembles an embarrassingly un-seamanlike cross between a caravan and a laundry. On the few occasions that visitors have prompted us to take the time to go for a sail, it took a full morning to prepare the boat for sea (i.e. to shove half the stuff into lockers, and to hide the other half ashore) and even then we were essentially sailing single-handed as Bronwyn needs all her faculties to concentrate on feeding our ever-hungry passenger. This has tested the limits of our adaptability and we have temporarily declared the boat a visitor-free zone until our new crew-member is able to cope a little more independently.
2014 is a year not only of Bronwyn and my significant round-number birthdays, but also of our tenth wedding anniversary. This is a year that we have been planning for since before we were married; this is the year that everything changes.
During our wild and wonderful travels around the world, we have been seizing opportunities and laying ideas like duck eggs. A very few of them hatched and wandered off or were eaten by pike, but most of them hung around and slowly grew to adulthood. Some even turned into swans. All of them come into their full plumage in 2014. This is the year that we get all our ducks in a row. Quack, quack, quack.
We never expected this particular duck to be the first. In fact, its basic features are less duck and more cuckoo. Decades ago in a different life I made an investment decision that, for most of its long and sometimes expensive life, was a lemon. It bounced along through recessions and financial crises, being bought and re-sold by commercial players in the sub-prime market, but the policy itself was locked in to mature in 2014. I had always assumed that when I received the pitiful payout, I would then invest it in some other (hopefully more profitable) venture.
So here we are. The investment matures next month, and mysteriously has picked up a bit of value in recent years, despite the global recession. But what to do with the payout, in a world of minimal interest rates and austerity?
At about the same time, we realised that if we were going to stay in the UK, we really really didn’t want to keep haemorrhaging rent payments, and we were already feeling over-exposed in the property market, so we didn’t want to buy another house. So where would we live?
After the dramatic success of our life on our first yacht Pindimara, we have always planned to buy The Next Boat and sail her home to Australia from wherever we happened to be. This wasn’t due to happen until about 2019, but we suddenly realised that we could kill three birds with one stone by buying The Next Boat, and living on her until we were ready to leave.
One of the best things that I did when purchasing our first yacht, Pindimara, was to accompany the surveyor on his inspection. Over the course of a morning I had learned far more from him than he later put in his report, and was still benefiting from his advice years later.
In our search for a surveyor for Elizabeth, then, we used three simple criteria: The surveyor had to have good qualifications, respond quickly to email, and welcome the buyer’s involvement in the survey. We chose Ian Anderson and booked a day off work.
Ian was really, really thorough, and together we spent almost a day going over the vessel with a fine tooth-comb. We could find absolutely nothing amiss.
Ian flew off to Nigeria to survey a warship, and Bronwyn and I agreed to pay Derrick the full asking price, as long as he had her anti-fouled (after all, she was already out of the water for the survey) and would sail her back to Southampton for us. He readily agreed, and also offered to take us sailing so that we could get used to her before delivery.
We had a great sail with the Derrick and Audrey on Elizabeth. We all got along very well and had a lot of laughs, and the trip highlighted a number of design improvements that Bavaria have implemented since building Pindimara. Elizabeth has an updated rig with in-mast furling, which make single-handed sailing much easier. Purists argue that a furling main sacrifices performance, but it quickly became clear that Elizabeth was much, much faster than Pindimara, and that the battenless rig was much simpler to reef single-handed. The electronics were also better integrated, particularly the autopilot which worked effortlessly.
A couple of weeks later, we all met up again in Southampton. Derrick shed a quiet tear as he gently patted Elizabeth goodbye, and The Next Boat became our new home.
Everybody who has ever owned a yacht is continually, even if only in the background, thinking about The Next Boat. With some years in the UK ahead of us, we had idly been putting some thought into one day buying a new yacht and sailing her home to Australia. There was no real urgency, but we had some investments maturing and no real idea what to do with them, so we had been keeping half an eye on the ‘yachts for sale’ pages of the internet.
There was one lovely world-cruiser in Florida, and another nice example in the UK’s west country. We put in some quiet requests for more information, and discovered that the Florida boat was already under offer, and that the UK yacht’s owner had suddenly changed his mind and didn’t want to sell after all.
A third likely candidate showed up near Southampton. She was a ten-year old Bavaria 37, slightly larger than our previous yacht Pindimara but to the same familiar and proven design. In addition she was the roomier “Master’s” version, with the advantage of a two-cabin layout and only a single head. Because she was a private sale, she was considerably cheaper than other similar boats from dealers, and yet she looked to be in remarkably good condition with most of the extras that we wanted.
We discovered that the owner, Derrick, had just spent a week sailing her east from Southampton and then north up the coast to East Anglia, but England isn’t very big and nothing is really very far away by road, so we drove over to see her.
We were quietly impressed. Derrick, who has been sailing her for almost ten years, is an excellent hobbyist electrician and woodworker, and has kept her in great shape. Every repair and change was an improvement on the original without materially affecting her design. We immediately commissioned a marine survey.
The hail storm eased off, leaving a thick white layer of marbles that crunched into powder between the fat tyres and the cobblestones. It was early on Boxing day morning, and as I carefully eased my motorcycle over the slippery surface, cosy lights glimmered from the snug breakfast warmth of the Yorkshire cottages.
My pillion, Iain, and I were heading for the North Yorkshire moors. Once we got there, we intended to spend the few days between Christmas and the New Year crossing England from east to west in time for our annual New Years booze-up in the Lake District. We were, of course, fully aware that the Pennine passes are usually closed at that time of year, but if you’re trying to find adventure in your own country you may as well make it interesting.
The temperature dropped steadily as we approached the loom of Sutton Bank, westernmost outpost of the Hambletons, a range of hills between us and our chosen starting point of Whitby. A sudden squall of snow obliterated my vision, forming a thick veneer of ice on my helmet. Unable to open my visor for fear of getting snow on my glasses, I had to be content with riding one-handed while continuously scrubbing with my left hand. It was already cold enough for the snow to settle even on the wet road, and a succession of sharp bends between high hedgerows began to make life slightly interesting.
We made it as far as the base of Sutton Bank before I decided that not all of the frantically flashing and hooting oncoming car drivers could be delinquent hooligans, so I pulled over into a convenient snowdrift to take stock.
It was clearly snowing up on the Bank, but the clouds parted occasionally to reveal that something else was also going on up there. Short jigsaw visions of frantically flashing brake and hazard lights added up to the realisation that cars were getting about halfway up the Bank and then slowly sliding down backwards until they could get enough purchase to turn round and come back down.
We consulted the map, and pointed the Honda Revere back at the village. The new heading was a wide sweep around the southern flank of the Hambletons, and above us the weak midday sun picked metallic highlights from the dark cloud that had now settled permanently over Sutton Bank and its luckless motorists.
We turned east under Wass Bank, and considered our options. We could either continue our sensible lowland detour, which would not take us far out of our way and which would avoid the Hambletons altogether, or we could chance the louring bulk of Wass Bank.
The gradient was fairly fierce, but clear of snow until the final thirty feet, where it became a steep ramp coated with a couple of inches of fresh powder. We rolled to a halt just below the snowline and squinted into the glare. Traffic signs indicated that there was a crossroads on the brow, but the thick woods on either side obscured our view of oncoming traffic.
I left Iain by the roadside and took a run-up, only at the last second deciding to stop at the top instead of barrelling blindly across the crossroads. Fighting to keep the steeply inclined machine level with the Give Way sign, my heart skipped as two Volvos scrunched past. Had I been alone I would have had to stay there until the snow melted. Fortunately, Iain was wearing hiking boots, and so once he had struggled up the slope himself, he was able to get enough traction to give me some sort of a push. Half way across the junction, the back wheel attempted to overtake the front, and I put my own foot down to steady the bike. Unfortunately, I was wearing flat-soled motorcycle boots, and on that slippery surface I may as well not have bothered.
With a nasty crunching sound, the Revere toppled over in the snow. Cursing the vagaries of the manufacturers of motorcycle clothing, we righted the now slightly battered bike and surveyed the damage. The hard plastic of the right hand pannier had cracked like an eggshell and a piece about four inches long was missing, but the box had maintained its integrity and nothing seemed to have fallen out. Iain went back to try and locate a white piece of plastic in the white snow, while I stood by the equally white bike trying to pretend to motorists that it was bright red and bore absolutely no resemblance to the snowbank against which it stood.
A couple of miles down the road was the town of Helmsley, so we stopped to buy some food cans, a can opener (my fifteenth, I think. Where do they all go?) and a black plastic bin liner to wrap around the pannier and stop our luggage from getting too wet, just in case it started to snow again.
And snow it did. As we rode down out of the hills and headed northward across the flat exposed moorland toward Whitby, a storm came up out of the west and threw everything it had. I had to lean the bike right over into the gale, virtually scraping the footpegs just to travel the dead straight road over Goathland Moor. The snow drove horizontally across the darkening landscape, my hands were going numb even protected by two pairs of gloves, and I was back to continually wiping my visor in order to snatch brief glimpses of the road. One day, I swore, I would buy a set of heated handlebar grips.
Strange Happenings in Whitby
Then as dusk finally fell, we entered Whitby, and the snow stopped. The town was, not surprisingly, deserted. We parked up in the shelter of some public toilets by a children’s paddling pool, and considered our next move. This was obviously just a lull in a storm that looked set to blow all night, so for the first time that day we used the logic that raises us above the apes. To shelter from a westerly storm, we reasoned, camp in the lee of an east-facing cliff.
Whitby sits on the east coast, separated from the sea by a vertical drop of some hundred feet or so, with a small tarmac footpath winding in a series of hairpins down to the beach. The path is exactly the same width as a fully laden Revere. We parked about a third of the way down, and erected the tent a few yards away vertically upwards on a convenient flat grassy shelf. Soon, some hot food and cold beer later, we drifted off to sleep.
Nobody knew where we were, apart from a vague “on the bike north of Coventry”, and we certainly hadn’t planned to camp above the beach at Whitby; it had just turned out that way. So for me to be woken up a few hours later by someone standing outside my tent calling my name was utterly ridiculous. In bewilderment I poked my head out, to meet the eyes of an embarrassed policeman looking most uncomfortable balanced on the edge of a cliff in a thunderstorm.
Mr.Reading?, he said. I tried my best to act cool. “Is there a problem, officer? No sir. Or at least, there wasn’t, but I think we’ve caused you one…”
Apparently, someone out for a midnight stroll down the beach in the rain had seen the white Honda perched on the path, and had reported it to the police. A constable was sent down, took the registration, failed to notice my camouflaged tent in the darkness, and rang Fenella in the small wee hours. “We don’t want to bother you, they’d said, but w’eve just found your boyfriend’s bike halfway down a cliff…”
After the hysterics had passed, they admitted that it was in fact parked and locked rather than crumpled and smouldering, and, with her teeth firmly clenched around a brandy bottle, she ordered them back to look for the tent, and then ring her back, or else.
The rest of the night was uneventful, and next morning we got up with the dawn (not as early as it sounds in late December), road into town and wandered up to the Abbey. The cold soon drove us back down, and a different policeman directed us toward a cafe and a fried breakfast, and after a suitable amount of huddling against a radiator we set off westwards over the North Yorkshire Moors.
Across the Moors
We had decided to take the plethora of minor roads that accompany the railway on its journey toward Middlesborough, and had chosen two potential routes, one that wandered out over the high moors, and another that stayed safely in the valley with the trains. We planned to go high in good weather, and stay low in bad, and there was plenty of scope for switching between the two as circumstances altered.
The morning was glorious, the roads dry and the bends evil: in short, perfect riding conditions. We admired the scenery around Egton, and paused at Glaisdale where road, rail and water routes cross in a picturesque crosshatching of bridges. We were just about to take our high road when the rain started up, so amazingly we took the sensible option and made our way down through the mass of roads around Castleton, pausing briefly at a vandalised sign before continuing westwards.
Almost immediately I was presented with a torrential ford crossing. Iain got off, and I tentatively selected low gear and eased gently out into the torrent. The water came over the hubs but I was delighted to find that the bike showed no tendency to float like a car, but just ploughed along the bottom and up the other side. Rather than stop on the immensely steep valley side I ran up to the top and waited for Iain, who had crossed over the footbridge.
The hill should have made me think, but I was extremely chuffed about the ford and the weather was clearing again. Five minutes later we were riding blind through a cloud under a deluge of icy water. Visibility was down to a few yards and the road was littered with soggy sheep. We werent as miserable as the sheep, for we knew from our map that we had only to cross this small ridge of high ground before the descent into Kildale. But the ridge went on, and on, and on, until we fetched up against a road junction that just had no right to be there.
There was a road sign, but it was unlit and we had to get off and trace the letters with our frozen fingers, and then huddle over the dull yellow glow of a headlamp that I was sure used to be a fiercely burning halogen. There was nothing wrong with the electrics, just a thick coating of ice particles that no amount of rubbing would shift. That page in my Ordnance Survey atlas is now warped beyond recognition, but we found out where we were, neatly sandwiched between two symbols that mean ‘viewpoint’, balanced right on the highest point of the moor.
It was time, once more, to turn around. I successfully negotiated the sodden sheep and then, out of the cloud and full of new-found confidence, burned down the hill toward the ford, braking at the last minute and contemptuously hitting it at about 20mph. At the other side I stopped and thoughtfully emptied the water out of my boots.
Once off the moors we stopped at a village called Stokesley for a pub lunch and to dry my socks. They had good beer, good food, and lots of drinkers who watched in polite amazement as we peeled off layers of damp clothing and stacked them in front of the fire. Inevitably, there was the man who used to ride a Vincent, and he reckoned that the A66 through the Pennines was now open. We lingered as long as we could, but we wanted to camp somewhere closer to the pass to give us time to get over as early as possible the next morning. We donned our gear and went back out into the rain.
Richmond, situated in the lowlands to the east of the Pennine passes, fitted the bill perfectly. All that remained was to find a place to sleep, and a few minutes drive soon revealed a wide grassy verge next to a quiet lay-by.
The next morning was unbelievably cold. The alloy of the tent-pegs was cold enough to burn, but we couldn’t grasp them through our gloves, so we ended up leaving the bike engine idling, pulling the pegs out barehanded, and returning to the bike every few minutes to jam our frozen fingers up the exhaust pipe. The stuff all fitted back in, but as I was locking the last pannier the key snapped off in the lock. It was that cold.
A welcome hot breakfast in Richmond, and some more radiator-huddling, saw us setting off on foot to explore the town. There was a lot to see, but we spent most time at the castle around which Richmond is built. The restored tower commands tremendous views, and the lady who sold us our tickets used to be a biker herself, and allowed us to bring the bike up from its two-hour parking zone and leave it in the castle grounds. Below the ruin is a wide brown river that tumbles over a small cataract of falls. I commented on its suitability for kayaking, and the local standing next to me responded, “Oh yes, its very popular. We lose one or two canoeists a year!”
Through the Pennine pass
And then we were off once more on a swift blast toward the Pennines and the infamous A66. The pass was, in fact, open, but the dales were deeply buried in snow and the traffic slowly moved nose to tail in one another’s tyre tracks. We passed the hotel where, until very recently, a group of guests and motorists had been trapped for a week without food, and then thankfully dropped down the other side to the tea shops of Appleby, and the fast winding run through Windermere and Ambleside to the warm welcome and hot showers of our hotel under the Langdale Pikes. The guest ales were settling in their barrels and the first arrivals were trickling in for the annual celebration of the end of the old year’s tales, and the beginning of the new.
There used to be a tradition among a certain class of English gentlemen that when the firstborn son came of age, he set off on a “Grand Tour” around the cities of Europe. Ostensibly this was to educate him in the classics of art and architecture, but it was also his first and only chance to spread his wings and do some growing up on his own. On his return, he was expected to rejoin Society as a fully formed and well-adjusted individual who had had his fun (and, possibly, sown some wild oats) far from the critical eyes of Polite Society, before taking up the serious business of marriage, children and the family estate.
That era is of course long gone, and I certainly didn’t belong to the titled or monied class, but as an eighteen-year old who had just left home to start out at university, the idea had a rather splendid appeal. I got together with David and Andrew, my closest friends from school, and bought an ‘Interrail’ ticket, available to anyone under the age of 26 and valid for 30 days on any train in the whole of Europe.
It was our first taste of independent travel, and for me it was the trigger for a lifetime of flitting from place to place, never quite settled, always moving on. This is the tale of that first trip, when, wide-eyed and naive and wet behind the ears, we set out with empty wallets, ridiculously heavy backpacks, and a wide-eyed wonder at the world beyond our borders.
Free train to Loch Ness (Scotland)
Interrail were doing a deal whereby if we purchased the ticket early enough, we received a ‘free ticket to anywhere’. Having never travelled together before, or indeed done any long distance train travel, we decided to do a trial run on the longest train journey available to us over the Easter weekend. After careful perusal of the timetables, we figured out that we just had time to take the train from London in South East England to Inverness in North East Scotland, hike to the famous Loch Ness, camp overnight on its shores, and then turn back around and go home again.
We had a fine old time, and took the opportunity to shake down our hiking and camping gear, and work out what we would take with us when we left for Europe a few months later.
London to Dover (England)
September soon arrived. Since our Interrail ticket was not valid in the country of purchase, David and I chose the cheap option of a bus to Dover to catch our ferry to France, where we could start our rail journey with an overnight train to Paris. For reasons that remain obscure, Andrew chose not to travel with us, but instead took a train. David and I arrived at the port without any problems, but the ferry to Calais began to board with no sign of Andrew. We already had tickets so we got on the boat anyway. After a look around the decks, we tried to page him on the intercom, but with no result so we had to assume that he was not on board.
Arriving in Calais with an hour to kill before the next ferry arrived – hopefully with Andrew aboard – we went for a wander. We established that there seemed to be two “cathedrals”, but one was derelict and the other was the town hall, which I later described in my diary as “a technicolor version of Big Ben”
We were particularly enamoured by the local treatment of railway crossings. If the barriers were down across the road, it simply meant that the drivers needed to slalom around them without slowing. Pedestrians just ambled across whether the barriers were up or down. On one occasion, there was actually a train parked across the road, presumably waiting for a signal, but the first pedestrian to reach it simply opened a door, stepped into the carriage and out of the door on the other side, the rest of us trooping after.
Andrew wasn’t on the second ferry either.
Remember that this was 1983, well before the invention of mobile phones. We had previously arranged for a relative to act as a message depot if we ever got separated while travelling, so after spending some time trying to understand the labyrinthine French public telephone system, we finally received a message that Andrew was going to be on the second ferry after ours. Apparently he had got on a London bus to the railway station, but the bus had crashed, resulting in him catching the wrong train which went to the wrong side of Dover. When he finally arrived at the ferry port, out of breath from running across the town, they told him that his ticket wasn’t valid until the third ferry.
The problem with this was that he would arrive after the last train had left Calais for the night. We had booked no accommodation because we had intended to sleep on the train to Paris, but the next departure after the ferry was due to arrive didn’t leave until 05:30 the following morning. In fact, once his ferry docked at 20:00 there weren’t any trains leaving for anywhere.
We suddenly recognised Andrew standing at the ferry port. His boat had come in early, and so we all sprinted with our 35lb backpacks to the station and boarded the only remaining train. Apparently it was going to Italy via Switzerland.
Andrew and David curled up on their seats, and I chose to stretch out on the floor, which was comfortable enough albeit a little bone-shaking over the points. We had come up with a new itinerary, intending to sleep until our early morning arrival in Basel, and then change for Munich, ultimately bound for the fabled fairy-tale castles of Fűssen. David and I were up and ready and hopped off when the train stopped, but Andrew had found a hot-water basin in a carriage further up and decided that he just had time to have a quick shave.
There were no open borders back in 1983. David and I headed for Customs, where our shiny blue-and-silver passports got us waved through without any attention. From behind the barrier, we noticed that Andrew’s carriage had been disconnected and was being shunted out of the station. Some distance from the platform, he suddenly appeared at a doorway, leaped out and headed back for the station, waving his passport in the air as he ran.
We repaired to the station buffet and broke our fast with coffee and a sausage roll, congratulating ourselves on having finally arrived somewhere more or less as planned and more or less together. As we lingered over coffee and made smug notes in our diaries, our Munich train rolled out of the station.
According to the timetable, it was theoretically possible to catch another Munich train from Basel’s other station, a tram ride away. “Streetcar Number 2” said a helpful uniformed gentleman, but that tram left without us while we were still trying to understand the ticket machine. Eventually Andrew managed to organise the correct change, and we purchased 60 minutes of travel time. A Number 6 passed, then another Number 6, but no Number 2. Suddenly we realised that the Number 6 also went to Badischer Bahnhof, climbed aboard the third one, leaped out at the station and sprinted across a busy street and onto the deserted platform. We’d missed the Munich train by three minutes.
It was still before 09:00 on our first day in Europe. A close perusal of the timetable revealed that, with a couple of changes, we could get to Munich by 17:00. The first train didn’t leave for a while, so we headed to the station bathroom for a wash and, for Andrew, for the second half of his shave.
After a snack of chocolate bars and iced tea, we climbed aboard the 08:36 to Singen. We’d already noticed that some trains were made up of a mixture of rolling stock from different countries, and this was our first Deutsche Bahn carriage, with compartments which boasted seats that converted into couchettes. We resolved to look out for more of these carriages in future.
We arrived in Singen with 6 minutes to transfer to the Lindau train, and made it with time to spare. We even managed to score another DB carriage, although when David pulled the seat out to form a couchette, the whole thing fell off the wall. As we were trying to quietly put it back together again, we congratulated one another on having, nevertheless, executed a flawless train connection for the first time. Then the ticket inspector arrived and told us that we were in the wrong carriage, and that the train was being split in two and we were at the wrong end of it. We sprinted up the corridor and just managed to jump the gap before our carriage moved off.
Finally, for the first time on this trip, we had a chance to sit quietly and look at the scenery. The train was zig-zagging back and forth between Germany and Switzerland, allowing us to admire the picturesque Swiss villages, partially obscured by low-lying clouds.
In Lindau, we wound our way between groups of souvenir-buying tourists and found a cafe with views across Bodensee (Lake Constance). The lake was very attractive, and although it was warm and sunny, there were thunderous cloud formations rising above the Swiss Alps.
The cafe prices were rather high for our shallow pockets, but as we sipped our coffee we discovered that they were happy to sell us individual slices of bread, which we could then load up with sliced German sausage that we had purchased earlier from a butcher.
Having bought some more supplies, we boarded the correct train at the correct time, and even got a DB carriage. There was nobody else in our six-seater compartment, so we converted all the seats to give ourselves a big flat space to lounge around in, and then – for the first time since leaving England – we dared to take off our boots.
Fűssen / Neuschwanstein (Germany)
Several changes later, including one missed connection and the wrong end of another splitting train, we arrived in the town of Fűssen. I ruefully tallied our record of correctly executed train connections in my diary: a grand total of One. Obviously there was more to this Interrail business than met the eye, but at least we could only improve.
We’d bumped into another pair of Interrailers on the train who already knew the lie of the land, so they took us on a night-time hike to a viewpoint where we could catch a glimpse of the famous castles. There are two of them, one white and one yellow, and we stared up at them spotlit against the pitch-black mountainsides, hanging up there in the stars. This was new, this was different, this was the sort of thing that we wanted to experience. We resolved to climb up to at least one of them in the morning.
While our guides returned to their hostel, we found a flat piece of grass and pitched our tent in pitch darkness, cooking tinned chicken and rice before falling into a deep and satisfied sleep.
We woke and struck camp early; necessarily so, because we had pitched our tent in the grounds of a local hotel, within view of the breakfast room, and we thought it politic to be gone before anybody noticed. We washed up and performed our ablutions down the road in the surprisingly warm waters of the Alpensee, which stands at the very foot of the Alps in a glaciated basin, and began the long climb up to the fairy-tale white castle above.
The path lead through dark and dripping pine forests, hewn out of the mud and edged with railway sleepers, with each step an awkward one-and-a-half strides. Humping metal-framed 16kg rucksacks was a bit of a chore, but finally we reached the top.
Schloss Neuschwanstein (then called Neu Hohenschwangau) was built and inhabited by “Mad King Ludwig” in the late 19th Century. He had spent the happiest days of his youth in his father’s refurbished castle, the gothic yellow Hohenschwangau that we had seen at a distance the night before. Although still rich and powerful, Ludwig’s sovereignty of the kingdom of Bavaria had been removed during a deal with Prussia, so he had it in his mind to create a small private “kingdom” which was more true to his vision of romantic Bavarian tradition. As his power dwindled, he began tinkering with the plans, focussing on the legends of the Knights Templar of the Holy Grail as his model.
The result is a candied confection of Gothic splendour mixed with the very latest in 1860s convenience and technology. The walls are painted with spectacular friezes from German legends, separated by buttresses painted in a crazy clash of red, blue, green and yellow. The Gothic carvings in the master bedroom are superb (apparently taking 14 master carvers 4 years to complete), and the chandeliers throughout are modelled on Byzantine crowns in gilt brass with coloured glass gems. The kitchens are massive, and filled with labour-saving devices such as rotisseries driven by smoke turbines.
The difficult but picturesque building site was originally chosen because it could be viewed dramatically from a suspended foot-bridge, the Marienbrűcke, that Ludwig’s father Maximillian had had built as a birthday present for his mountain-climbing consort, Marie. It was a hard climb up to the bridge, but worth it for the views.
Rain had begun to fall as we began our descent, this time running with our backpacks crashing around us at that wretched step-and-a-half, step-and-a-half cadence, but regardless of our efforts, we were soaked to the skin by the time we reached Fűssen. We were out of cash, but one of us had a credit card, so we treated ourselves to a decent Bavarian meal in the touristy Restaurant am Park.
On the way to Munich, we met a girl from Chicago who recommended the Hofbrauhaus am Platzl for its “ethnic atmosphere”, so we dropped in to see if we could get a spot of dinner.
The enormous underground cavern was awash with music and song, packed with beer-mug thumping locals in lederhosen and Tyrolean hats. We fought our way through to an opening on a long trestle table, and tried to attract the eye of one of the impatient serving girls. Even though I spoke reasonable schoolboy German and was theoretically able to communicate effectively, everything had to be shouted over the deafening music and laughter, and the serving system proved incomprehensible. The waitresses, bulging enticingly in our teenage eyes from their traditional dirndls, seemed overwhelmed and somewhat grumpy. Some girls seemed to serve only food, and others only litres of beer, but it was never clear which we were going to get. We did, however, end up with three steins of amber nectar and a single meal of sausage and sauerkraut and sweet pastries, which we shared. Then a nearby party moved away, leaving unfinished beers, so we commandeered them, at which point the waitresses got the idea and kept bringing steins to us, whether we had specifically ordered them or not.
When we eventually staggered out into a riotous evening of street entertainers performing in the Gothic shadows of central Munich, we were perhaps a little tipsy, and somehow managed to lose Andrew on the way back to the station. Luckily we had arranged a meeting point at Platform 15, where we decanted ourselves aboard the night train to Vienna.