26 Sep 2004, Leeds
Methodist minister, husband, father.
Genealogist, book-lover, amateur cosmologist.
Autodidact, thinker, dreamer.
Unique, beloved, loving.
Rest in peace.
01 Sep 2004, Leeds, Yorkshire
If you thought buying a house was a tricky business, try buying a boat. Scheduling a marine survey around a suitable low tide, finding out whether the boat actually belongs to the guy who is selling it, finding workmen who not only are reliable and trustworthy but can also cope with the peculiarities of fitting out a home with curving walls made of steel... it all got very complicated.
In the meantime there were people making helpful comments like: 'A boat is a big hole in the water into which you pour money' and 'The two best days in a boatowner's life are the day he buys the boat, and the day he sells it.'
So I decided to take some time out to reconsider my options, and to look at some more boats.
I spent five days in the Isles of Scilly with Dave and Jane, on board their beautiful 1950's motor cruiser, the Polaris (as in the pole star, not as in the nuclear submarine) - pictured above. After a choppy crossing from St Mary's we anchored in a sheltered bay just off Tresco, and I spent the next few days learning about the liveaboard lifestyle.
I started to appreciate just how much infrastructure is required to make a boat into a comfortable and self-sufficient home. As well as everything you'd have in a house - electrics, plumbing, hot water and heating systems - you also need to generate your own power, purify your own water (or have huge water storage tanks) and have an enormous capacity for fuel. The Polaris has an impressive range of 9000 miles without needing to stop for refuelling.
Without a garden it's tricky to be self-sufficient for food as well, but we supplemented our shore-bought supplies with shrimps, lobster and crab we caught ourselves - my favourite foods, and absolutely free, courtesy of the sea. Rick Stein, you can keep your exorbitantly over-priced seafood - ours was fresher! Dave and Jane regularly barter their crab surplus for large quantities of French wine, so we lived well.
They had some fantastic tales to tell about their travels. They'd taken the Polaris on a cruise through the inland waterways of Europe, starting in the canals of France and making their way gradually down the Danube before popping out into the Black Sea. Looking at the map of their route really got my feet itching to travel again.
My wanderlust was further fuelled a couple of days after I returned to the mainland, when I went to see the Sammy Ley, an elegant yacht with living quarters beautifully fitted out in mahogany and brass. Her owners had spent the last 10 years sailing her around the world with their disabled son.
Have boat, will travel, it seems... slight problem, though. I don't know how to sail (looking up at the Sammy Ley's huge mast set my knees a-knocking) and motor cruising is an expensive alternative - to refill the tanks on the Polaris costs between £1300 and £6000 (depending on where you go - it can be well worth making a detour of several hundred miles for cheaper diesel).The cost, and my tender green conscience, made me uncomfortable with the motor option.
So nothing is yet decided.
But in the meantime, I'm enjoying the summer. After my foray to the Scillies, I spent a few days in Devon (thanks to Fred and Fiona in Kingsbridge for their hospitality, and to Ben and Yasmine in Salcombe for the white-knuckle ride on their speedboat), then to Winchester (thanks to Rich and Nicola), Littlehampton (thanks, Geoff and Tanya) and Arundel (thanks, Andy & Emer).
Now I'm back in Leeds to spend time with my parents - the top priority for now, since my father's recent stroke. Boats and travel may have to wait a wee while.
03 Aug 2004, London
(above: the van at Vann)
My new home is a white VW camper van called Priscilla. The good ship Alvracht was an interesting place to live for a while, but I realised I'm just too old and too set in my ways to be sharing accommodation with four other people and a big hairy dog.
Since my little red sports car was stolen before Christmas, I've been very happily car-less, a smug cyclist relishing the fact that not only is a bicycle completely eco-friendly and a good form of exercise, but it's also the quickest way to get around the traffic-choked streets of London.
But it was reaching the point where being on two wheels had its limitations. A few recent purchases on eBay were too large to be carried on a bike, and if my master plan to buy a boat and do it up myself comes to fruition, I'm going to need to carry pieces of timber, deck furniture, kitchen sinks, etc. Not easy on a bicycle.
I've recently been making a few longer journeys, to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth in Wales, over to the Green Shop near Stroud, up to Yorkshire to see my parents - and the train fares were starting to mount up.
I'm booked to do my basic Yachtmaster course at the Bisham Abbey Sailing School near Marlow next week, and local B&B's were prohibitively expensive.
Given all the above, when a friend mentioned he'd just bought a camper van, I realised this would be the answer to all my needs. This flash of inspiration occurred last Wednesday. On Thursday it still seemed like a good idea, so I started looking on eBay, but it seemed a bit risky buying a vehicle sight unseen. I looked on the Gumtree website and found a van for sale in Fulham. I went to look at it - tons of living space, but a real rustbucket, and very dodgy brakes. And SO heavy to steer - I'd have developed muscles Popeye would be proud of.
On Friday I was due to leave for Surrey to go to a mini-festival organised by Will, one of the members of my Peruvian expedition. I'd been planning to get the train there, but when I saw on the invite that as well as tent and sleeping bag, I needed to take food, I decided that acquiring a van had become a matter of urgency. And this seemed like the perfect occasion to christen my van, as the festival is named after the house where Will lives - a Tudor house called Vann (http://www.gardenvisit.com/g/van2.htm).
I bought a copy of Loot, and buried amongst the many adverts I found my dream machine - a 1986 VW camper which had been converted to run on LPG, (Liquefied Petroleum Gas - good info at http://buypower.vauxhall.co.uk/dualfuel/), a very low-emission fuel. In the space of an hour, appointment to view, banker's draft and insurance had been organised. On the way over to Battersea I dropped in at a VW dealer in Sands End to conduct some preliminary research. Their secondhand vans were all left hand drive, and at least twice the price of the one I was going to see. Got to Battersea, saw the van, loved it, bought it.
She performed like a star over the weekend, despite a few teething problems (after getting a flat tyre, I now know how to change the wheel, and have also learned the hard way that the fridge has to be plugged into the leisure battery in the back rather than the cigarette lighter in front, or else when you stall at a busy junction, you can't restart the van, and you have to wait while some very kind people whizz back to their house nearby to fetch some jump leads). I've also learned how to use an LPG pump - it's a bit different because you're pumping a gas rather than a liquid, so you have to clamp the nozzle firmly to the inlet.
Not only is LPG eco-friendly, it's also blissfully cheap - at around 39p per litre, it's about half the price of petrol. So I'm assured I'll be getting the price equivalent of 45 miles to the gallon - not bad for a big heavy camper van.
Priscilla is a quirky old thing - up to about 50mph, her speedometer needle swings up and down wildly, but once she reaches warp speed it steadies. And she doesn't like idling - it makes her stall. She's much happier when she's going at full velocity - in her case, about 65mph. I think she and I are going to get on very well - we have a lot in common - right down to our bodywork, which in both cases looks more or less presentable but has definitely seen better days!
05 Jul 2004, Brentford, London
Above: My new home, the good ship Alvracht
Life has been busy. Lots of interesting things happening, and I wanted to see how it was all going to start shaking down before I posted an update to my weblog.
Many things are still up in the air, but certain themes are starting to emerge - first and foremost, BOATS!
After 3 months of living in a Dickensian little garret above an antiques shop in central Richmond, I've now moved into a cabin on a 130 foot Dutch barge moored in Brentford. The good ship Alvracht is somewhat unofficially moored just north of Kew Bridge (OK, so we're squatters!) but it's a gorgeous boat, in a tranquil location, and just a stone's throw from my old stamping ground of Kew Green.
I share the boat with four other humans and a very large dog. The captain of the ship is a one-eyed ex-mountaineer called Caie - the story goes that he lost his eye as he was skiing down off the Eiger. He stopped to adjust his skis with a screwdriver, and slipped, and. eurgh. Nasty.
We have our own generator, solar powered lights, and water purification unit. It's a great opportunity for me to learn all about self-sufficiency, which will be handy, as I'm in the process of buying my own boat and want to get it set up to be totally self-contained and 100% eco-friendly. I won't jinx the purchase by saying too much now, but after a couple of years of being a nomad, it seems I'm shortly to be a home-owner again.
It will be the best of both worlds - once I learn how to navigate my boat, I'll be able to up sticks and move whenever I want. but without having to pack my bags!