Nearly the end of May, and the end of the Thames. Sara’s back from Italy, we’re back to canals and locks and bridges and steering, and it feels like the “river cruises” were some kind of weird dream with lots of swans and mayflies (they’re pretty, as insects go, but incredibly sticky - which isn’t so good when you’re trying to sweep and wash the boat and come up with a brush full of fly bits).
We all get asked a lot of questions about the work we do, so I thought this week I’d describe in detail the actual tasks so as not to confuse anybody in the future. The following is what Sara and I do - Corinne and Neil do all this plus running the actual business and keeping all the technical bits (engine, onboard toilets) working, so spare a thought for them!
We are cooks: Every day we start work at 7am, and either Sara or I begin the day by baking cakes, chopping veg, or any other food preparation that needs to be done for the day’s meals. Due to the rest of the work, it’s impractical to sort out lunch and dinner nearer the time so we have to be as organised as possible! With a spare half an hour during the day we’ll sometimes make another cake or start preparations for the next day.
We are chambermaids: While the guests have their breakfast, we clean all the cabins and bathrooms, and make sure everything is stocked and tidy. On turnaround days, the guests leave in the morning, giving us until lunchtime-ish to deep clean everything and change all the bed linen, then the new guests arrive in the afternoon (this is the one day per cruise both of us have an entire afternoon/evening off!).
We are waitresses: We prepare the table for breakfast, lunch and dinner (the table is in sections and needs to be taken down between meals for safety and ease, as they take up most of the room!). We serve lunch, which is a main course then fruit, and dinner, which is three courses plus cheese. We make tea and coffee after each meal as well as at 11am and 4pm (with which we serve all this cake that we make).
We are boat crew: This is definitely the most physically demanding part, and takes up most of the mornings and afternoons. One of us cleans the outside of the boat or polishes brass every morning at 7am while the other is in the kitchen. After breakfast we take lines up and one of us steers the butty while the other generally walks or cycles ahead to set the first lock or open any bridges along the way. This carries on until lunchtime, and can involve dodging oncoming boats, using a massive pole to force us away from shallow banks, hurrying over bridges and stepping gingerly across tiny platforms with a windlass (this is the metal hook/key-type thing which works the ratchet paddles on each gate of most locks) to get the lock ready as you can see the boats fast approaching, and tying off the elum at every lock as it adds another 2 feet to the length that we just can’t afford in the shorter locks! We moor up for lunch and afterwards, more of the same until we stop at our destination for the night. Hopefully at this point there’s time for a shower before we serve dinner, then the crew have their dinner after the guests finish, by which time it’s late enough for bed, sleep and starting all over again….
Not to mention: looking after Bertie, helping less steady passengers on and off the boat, writing out copies of recipes for guests who have asked, answering questions from passers-by, supplying Neil with cups of tea and glasses of squash throughout the day, polishing the rose panels, and last but not least (in fact, probably most), washing up for up to thirteen people from the prep and service of three meals a day.
So I hope that’s clarified things a bit! It’s the most hectic job I’ve ever had, but I love it and consider myself extremely lucky to be part of this little world. Another note, for a few people who know who they are: we aren’t barges, we don’t sail, and you don’t generally get pirates on canals.
Thanks for listening, you may now resume your normal viewing patterns.