After almost three hours’ work we stood in a row on the quayside waving her off. It was an emotional moment – at least for me. There was nobody on board the good ship Ann, no one to whom we were saying goodbye and no one to miss. It was just Ann herself and, anyway, she would be not away long. In a month she would be back, resplendent after a major refit.
When I first heard of her imminent journey down the Thames to a shipyard in Chatham, I felt I had had to be there when she left. Though an inveterate landlubber, I had become very attached to this large barge – once a work-horse, now a house-boat. The attachment had taken me by surprise. For years Ann, a ‘Humber Keel’ design dating from the 19th century (though a descendant of the Viking long ship) had carried cargo around England. Then, in her dotage, she had been fixed to dry land and moored at a quay in Greenland Dock in East London. When my son Joshua and his wife Ali bought Ann late last year only some of her hold had been made habitable but now the time had come to make the living space comfortable and fully functional. In order to watch her go, to see her on her way, I needed to know exactly when she would be cast off.
From Joshua’s response, I suspect he was surprised by my enthusiastic interest and thirst for detail and when the departure programme arrived it was precise – almost military. It was estimated that to get her from her moorings out onto the river would take just under two hours. The final preparation for her departure would start at 9.15, and at 11.00am, at high tide, she would pass through the lock gates that separate her dock from the Thames.
I arrived at 9.00am. There were five of us on board to help; my son and his wife, my other son Oliver, a neighbour Cathy, and me. We first unloaded the bags, cases, pieces of equipment and other essentials that remained after everything else of value had gone into storage. Then we untied all the moorings apart from one rope at the front and another at the back. With the boat almost free we were joined by six port-authority workers and, with the help of two tiny tugs pulling the ropes, they gradually eased Ann out into the narrow waterway between moored boats and the stone quay. The moment she became free-floating was both a delight and a reassurance. The old girl could still float independently without the need of the equivalent of crutches or stays!
But there was still important work to be done. Left to her own devices she would have crashed up against other boats or the quayside, so all those on deck, bar me, rushed from side to side and from bow to stern checking for danger, lowering tyres overboard to minimise the impact of any collision. I was spared this job in order to act as ship’s recorder, taking photos as we went. Slowly, and with care, trepidation and much excitement, we reached and then passed through the sea lock.
There was, however, one moment of panic. A family of swans – two proud parents and seven tiny cygnets – were seen moving towards the open lock gates and potentially out into the apparently hostile estuary. All hell was let lose as the port-authority workers shouted and waved their arms and the tug engines went into reverse. Clearly they saw it as imperative that the swans stayed put. Gradually the family turned round and headed back to the dock and our journey could continue.
At 11.15, almost exactly as predicted, Ann was through the lock. With the help of the lock keeper those on board jumped onto the quay, while in the water a single large tug took over at Ann’s helm, pulling her out towards the middle of the river for the start of her twelve-hour journey downstream. She looked all alone and, with her dark blue hull, she reminded me of the pictures one sees of stray whales. The image made the morning that much more poignant. And in the imagery of the English language, of all inanimate objects only boats are given a gender. I wonder if it was because Ann was a real ‘she’ that the morning was so much more emotional.