After saying a little about my Great Camping Expedition in my last post I thought I'd put up a piece of writing that I did for my previous creative writing course. It's about a little boat trip I did on Rutland water on my first day in the county, and immediately prior to my visit to Burghley House. Actually, it's more about an elderly lady I met on the boat trip, than the boat trip itself. See what you think...
The captain welcomed me on board, taking my six pound fee and exchanging it for a small, grey ticket.
‘Is it sensible to get into a large metal box on a big expanse of water in the middle of a thunderstorm?’ I asked.
‘Yes, yes. We’re perfectly safe. The fools are the people out there in the sailing dinghies, with their masts pointing up to the sky inviting the lightning to knock them dead.’ He grinned.
I was a day into a month-long camping trip around England and had made it as far as Rutland - the smallest county in England. I was travelling alone, and although certain that I’d meet some interesting people along the way, I was a little anxious that I might get lonely on my journey, so I knew I had to make the effort to talk with people.
My first night in the tent had been dry, but this morning the sky had become black. Daggers of lightning had split the thick cloud every few minutes and the rain had crashed to the ground like an enormous waterfall. My tent had proved to be mostly waterproof, but a sturdier roof was required for a while, so I had opted for a trip on the Rutland Water pleasure boat.
The cabin was a large, damp space with slippery floor-boards, thick, scratched windows that quickly steamed up, and forty or so plastic, classroom chairs set out in rows. Many were already occupied by senescent women with tight perms peeking out from under plastic rain-hoods. I took a seat on the far side of the boat next to one of the elderly ladies who sat alone, asking if she minded if I joined her. On the contrary, she appeared pleased – her mouth cracking into a broad, welcoming smile, and she introduced herself as Nancy.
‘Have you come far?’ I asked, making polite conversation.
‘Ooo yes, quite far – from Stamford.’
‘Where’s that?’ I enquired, adding, ‘I’m visiting from Newcastle and don’t know my way around here.’
‘Stamford? It’s at least five miles away.’ Her sincerity left me in no doubt that this was a big trip out for her. I smiled and glanced out of the window just in time to notice that we were edging away from the jetty.
‘Now then ladies,’ one of the women had risen to her feet and was addressing her fellow passengers from the front. ‘Welcome to the Stamford Women’s Institute August day out. We’ve come for a lovely cruise on this beautiful reservoir, and afterwards we’ll have afternoon tea in the restaurant.’ A gentle ‘Ooo,’ resembling the moaning of a distant cow, reverberated amongst the women. ‘Settle back and enjoy the trip. I’m sure the captain will give us a fascinating tour of the lake.’
The captain did indeed make the trip as interesting as possible, informing us that the church on the lakeside – Normanton Church – had had to have its floor raised by three metres to avoid being flooded when the reservoir was created. This seemed ironic as the village it had served had been sacrificed for the creation of the reservoir. We were informed that on a bright day it was sometimes possible to see the remains of Nether Hambleton in the depths of the water, and I thought about all those whose homes had been submerged; of the ghosts wandering the bottom of the lake; of the sadness of a place gone forever. The dark waters of this day were to keep the secrets of the lost village to itself, and I felt the bleakness of the people who’d lost their homes was reflected in the area that was now flooded. There were few trees, few buildings, an expanse of grey water kept in place by expansive, grey walls, and it all appeared drabber in the dismal rain.
‘Isn’t this lovely?’ marvelled Nancy.
‘Great.’ I said, using the fact that I had a solid roof over my head in this miserable rain to instil some enthusiasm into my answer. ‘It’s good to get out sometimes, isn’t it?’ I added, sensing that Nancy wanted company and conversation.
‘Ooo yes,’ she crowed, and continued in her quivering, elderly voice, ‘Of course, when I was your age I was outside all the time ... I lived in a caravan. Harold was in the army and we decided we didn’t want to live in the barracks, not with the children, so we bought our caravan and drove it wherever Harold was posted.’
This was unexpected conversation, but Nancy’s eyes lit up as she spoke, some of her wrinkles seemed to drop out of her leathery skin, and I could see the vibrancy she once must have had before old age had crept upon her.
‘It must have been hard bringing up children while living in a caravan.’
‘It was hard work, but lovely. The children played outside all the time, and our Shirley – you should have seen how brown she was when we lived in Stranraer!’
I smiled at Nancy’s vivacity, ‘Should I?’
‘Oh yes, you should have! She was ever so brown ... Of course, when the children were babies I only had a single gas ring to cook on, but we got by. Although it wasn’t easy having to boil nappies and heat up bottles of milk all on the one ring. I had this huge pot,’ and Nancy gestured to indicate a pot of a foot wide and a foot and a half tall, ‘that I used for everything – milk, meals, nappies – the whole shebang.’ Nancy stopped talking and seemed to get lost in her memories, smiling with a fondness for times past.
‘Of course, Harold died ten years ago,’ and now she appeared to be lamenting the passage of time, the passing of her husband and possibly her now grown-up children’s independence.
I was suddenly struck by the importance of groups such as the Women’s Institute, and had a fresh awareness of how this trip on a boat on a man-made lake in a storm could be ‘lovely’. Nancy was not only given friendship by this band of spirited old women, but also a place to belong; people both to love and be loved by; an opportunity to keep living life even as the horizon approached.
As I contemplated Nancy’s worthy desire to head towards the end of her life with a beautiful sunset rather than a heavy fog, the boat pulled back up to the jetty from where we’d set out. The W.I. crowd were herded together by the woman who’d addressed them earlier, and a photographer from the local paper came aboard to catch a snap of this family of friends, who were delighted at this opportunity for twilight fame. I only narrowly avoided being rounded up into the group by the photographer, and once off the boat decided to head towards Stamford. The physical distance Nancy had covered between Stamford and Rutland Water may not have been great, but she had certainly travelled an emotional journey through her lifetime, and I felt honoured to have had some of this elderly lady’s story passed on to me. I wanted to see the place to where her journey had taken her.