Monday, June 4, 2012

The Thames Diamond Jubilee Pageant: We set sail

What an amazing, amazing day. I have to say that the Thames river pageant was one of the most exciting days of my life. It began for us at 4.30am, when it was barely light - and by the time my daughter and I  reached West India Dock, where we were to meet up with my mum and my twin sister on their boat, Galatea, we were still barely awake. I was very amused to see the name of the first narrowboat we came across ...

We found Galatea, and began the waiting. You always have to wait around for something on a narrowboat - I don't think I have ever got on my mother's boat and driven straight off. In this case, we were waiting for the official word to leave. We were due to lock out at about 8.30am.

Galatea had been decorated with metallic diamonds and three crowns along the top of the boat.

Yes! We're under way. One by one, the narrowboats cast off and set off into the dock.

West India Dock is a big dock, with a huge lock. The Independent offices used to be here, just on the left, and we quite often had tall ships and even naval frigates tie up alongside the canteen.

OK, everyone in? All 40 narrowboats? Yes? Now the lock gates can shut. These guys are used to working together and the efficiency with which this little flotilla operated was quite extraordinary.

My friend Ollie Brown (standing on the lock gate, below, taking the picture) was the site manager for West India Dock during the pageant. He did a wonderful job - he's so unflappable and businesslike. Just as well, because it's the sort of job where people queue up to moan at you.

More waiting, while the water level in the lock drops. Narrowboat skippers are philosophical about hanging around. Besides, it's a good excuse to have a cup of tea.

The gates start to open, and the boats prepare to cast off once again...

... and it's out into the open river.

My mother and my twin sister and her husband are used to taking the boat on the open river, but for me it was quite a heart-in-the-mouth moment, especially so because the weather was so bad. You're suddenly aware that you're standing on something that has about as much draught as a saucer.

But nobody else seemed very bothered, so I decided to relax and enjoy the ride. If you're going on the Thames you have to be in wireless communication, so each boat had its own call sign. The radio chat goes on all the time: "Romeo 65, this is Romeo 65, over" etc

You think of narrowboats as being quite slow and cumbersome. They're not built for speed, but for carrying freight, and on the canals, the speed limit is 5mph in any case.

However, they're nippier and more manoeuvrable than you would think (you do a lot of three-point turnes, and you use the reverse gear as a brake) - and on the Thames, where there is quite a fast current, it can seem as if you're going really fast. It was a bit like being in a narrowboat version of the Ride of the Valkyrie.

Those guys were outta there ...

... like rats up a drainpipe.

When the weather's like this, the best view is from indoors, where there is a wood-burning stove. Don't you love the way my mum has a bookcase on the boat?

I'm splitting these posts into sections because I'm so tired. We all got soaked - and then we all got soaked again. So I'll post the next section, on London's landmarks, later. It will involve more pictures of narrowboats. You have been warned.