Friday, 21 May 2010

CRUISE FIVE - Mayflies By

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.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Cruises Three and Four - Thames, Pole, Chowder

We’re at the end of cruise four now, and we’ve just arrived on the Thames. It’s been a bit of a rocky road to get here, involving precarious DIY by Sara and me, perched on the edge of the boat as we rescued a battered rose panel which had been almost torn to shreds by stonework on the side of a bridge; scary fast steering through winding canal (mixed with flowing rivers); getting stuck in a muddy bank on a VERY windy day and having to pole ourselves out of it; and of course lots and lots of comfort food. Cruise three, Devizes to Newbury, wasn’t a full one, so we had more time to spend with the guests. This is, in the words of Adrian Monk, a gift and a curse - everyone eating together meant that our evenings finished earlier than usual, and we could go to the pub (giving one guest her first ever game of darts, and she very nearly won!) or just sit and chat with them (that same guest gave us a recipe for a German snack she had as a kid - stale hot dog buns covered in butter and sugar and put in the oven until they’re solid. They last for weeks, apparently) instead of going straight to bed. However it also meant that we didn’t have as many people who were up for helping with the locks, so the actual work has been a lot more strenuous! We’ve picked up a couple of extra people for the past few days - the crew of another hotel boat vanished overnight (we presume on purpose) two days before the start of their season, so while they staff up again we’ve taken on one of their guests, and a local seasoned lock wheeler has joined us too.

Speaking of guests… I really didn’t want to write anything about any of the people we look after, but some things are too inane not to put in. To avoid actual names, I’m going to call all the male guests “Trevor” and the female guests “Deirdre”. And if those happen to be your names and you’re on one of our future cruises, rest assured I might not be talking about you. Although, to be honest, I might. So here’s a short conversation Neil had with Trevor the other day.

Trevor: “There’s a carpark.” (points to carpark)
Neil: “Yup.”
Trevor: “You could park a car in that.”

Well, it made me laugh anyway.

We’ve seen a lot of Tranquil Rose this week - a fellow hotel boat which seemed to be a few steps behind us most of the week, occasionally catching up (I heard a worried, “Er, is that person allowed to be on our boat?” from Deirdre as one of the owners clambered across us to fill TR at a water point). It’s run by a lovely couple called Steve and Steph, who are good friends with Neil and Corinne - they’re selling up this year to take control of Llangollen Wharf, but as I know the daughter of the potential buyer, I’m sure he’s lovely too!

And so here we are in Henley on a massive beautiful river, which requires barely any butty-steering, and so more time is spent in the kitchen. We’ve finished the limoncello we bought, which turned out to be made in the Netherlands and tasted a bit like soap, but Sara’s off to her home in Italy for a long weekend so she’s promised to bring some of the real stuff back. We’ve had Italian and Scottish evenings for the guests since the first week, and during the next cruise I’m going to attempt a Michelin-starred restaurant’s recipe - wish me luck! Next blog entry will probably be more about me than the cruise/guests, unless anything really spectacular happens… but I don’t want to write it all out here (I’m waiting for the next showing of Four Lions at the cinema, and I absolutely do not want to be late). Hope you’re all well, I want to hear from you! Send me a text or email if we haven’t spoken in a while. Oxford next week, see you there…

Also - a piece of cake to the folk who noted the Crystal Maze-related blog title.

Monday, 3 May 2010

Cruise Two - The Disaster Show

Who would have thought the bad stuff would happen right at the start of the summer? This week’s holiday started off well enough - a day off to explore Bath (what a beautiful city, why did nobody tell me?!), cheese and tea shopping, a couple of drinks playing multilingual Scrabble and chatting to the local bartenders of a music venue. Back to the boats to greet our new guests and discover that they are, in fact, all lovely, and mostly new to this boating lark. That means no more singing Avenue Q songs in the kitchen in case we scare them off… the cruise got started the next day, so for lunch we arrived at Bradford-on-Avon - our route is back the way we came before heading up to Reading and Henley - and as we were leaving, the Bad Things began. I’d been coughing quite a bit, so had been sent off to the chemist for throat sweets and was to meet the boats back at the first lock after they’d set off. This left only three crew: slightly inconvenient, but no catastrophe. So I went, and I came back, and there were Snipe and Taurus about to go under the bridge before the lock. I stood by the gate. I waited. Corinne came to join me, as she’d come ahead to check it was all set. We waited. Nothing was happening, nothing was moving. We waited. From our positions we could just about see under the bridge - the front of the motor was sitting there, apparently not doing a thing. Corinne went back to find out what the situation was, while I continued coughing and waiting. She was gone a while - there was a boat waiting to come the other way through the lock, and a crowd was gathering, as it became obvious there was a problem.

All of a sudden I saw Bertie sitting on top of the boat, shivering and wrapped in a towel, standard procedure after he falls into a canal. Again?! He doesn’t like water much, but seems predisposed to finding himself in it, and he’s only a little thing so if he isn’t willing to swim it’s a bit of a race to pull him out. As Corinne would say, il mio cane e pazzo! So that’s Bad Thing number one. Bad Thing number two - my cough was rapidly turning into a full blown cold (and is making me miserable as I type this!). Colds, according to Corinne and Neil, happen to people at the start of seasons, when all the new work gets on top of you. Aggravatingly, as with most snuffly fluey things, I’m completely fine and able to work mentally and physically, but constant running noses and coughing get in the way of food prep and service, cycling, talking and general activity! Bad Thing number three was the main issue with the boat - a huge piece of wood was stuck in the propeller, meaning the motor couldn’t work, meaning we had no power at all to move either boat. Corinne eventually had to bow-haul (pull with a rope) both boats into the lock - no mean feat, at 70ft long and 7ft wide each - just to get us out of the way, and the problem was sorted on the other side. The problem being sorted, however, relied on poor Neil having to get into the freezing canal up to his shoulders to physically drag the piece of wood away. Sara and I were sent to put on the kettle and run Neil a bath while onlookers and passengers in turn watched, laughed, panicked and took pictures. Canal folk (an expression I like, as opposed to “boat people”) appear to be generally a friendly bunch though, and we had some assistance from a couple of guys with beards, leather jackets and excellent West Country accents. We decided enough work had been done for that day and we moored, calmed down and had plenty of tea. Since then the weather has turned from “utterly glorious” to decidedly disgusting, but everything else is going smoothly. The last day of the second cruise was Caen Hill - a huge flight of 29 locks which somehow didn’t seem too ominous coming the other way… possibly because all of our eight passengers on the first cruise were helping out in some way. We have to separate the boats to do this flight, as the locks aren’t wide enough to hold both, so Neil went ahead by himself with the motor while Corinne bow-hauled the butty through and between every single lock. A tough day for everyone, but we finished on a high with Nutella mousse and alcoholic ginger beer to reward ourselves… Mmmm. Roll on Cruise Three!

Cruise One - The Beginning






My hands are sore and red: the outsides from sunburn, and the insides from rope burn. My head is still not used to waking up and starting work at 7am, although my body seems to be coping fine, and I’ve never eaten better in my life. Less than three weeks into my six months here, and things are going well so far…

I started taking pictures of boats and pretty canal scenery, but quickly realised it might get a bit boring - water does mostly look the same, as do boats when you see them enough. So above are some pics of random things, and I’ll add anything else that interests me (along with maybe a few canal boats - just the ones with funny names, obviously). Does anyone think Bertie the dog looks like Rude Dawg? As for the non picture portion of this, here we go.

Corinne and Neil are probably the most fun employers I’ve ever had. The four of us get along very well and I find that we’re giggling away at least half of every day, whether it’s at Neil’s mumblings about cake and tea, Sara’s attempts at translating (pazzi Italiani!) or Bertie the dog’s incessant hand-chewing. Our day consists of baking and cooking - for up to nine guests at a time as well as four crew - in addition to lock work and steering the butty (we use twin boats, one with the engine and one that tags along behind). Neil operates the motor and gives direction from up ahead while either Sara or I use the tiller to shift the second boat about. It’s a lot of hard work, especially for beginners; swing bridges and lock paddles are heavy and sometimes stiff too, though the hardest part is tying back the elum (the rudder bit where the tiller goes) on the back of the butty when we enter a lock, as our boats are too long to fit into some of them if we leave it as it is.

The weather has been utterly glorious. Very lucky for our first week considering it was mid-April! I have a tan on my face now, and the backs of my hands, but am still a pale Scot everywhere else - I’ll start wearing shorts once the bruising on my legs calms down a bit. Must remember to look where I’m going when I get in and out of the boats… our first guests have also been fantastic, as they’re all old hands at this so have been providing guidance and help in abundance. We seem to see the same boats along the canals at various points, as if we’re in some unwitting tag team - sister boats “Cat” and “Steben” providing some amusement, at least for me.

Sara and I, when not working, have been out and about the little villages and towns exploring a bit and tasting the local ales - some nice (I tried a pint of Croppie in Honey Street, a village famed for being the international crop circle centre) and some not so nice (Funky Monkey in Bradford-on-Avon, beautiful town, ale too fizzy and pale for me). I’m assuming this will continue and by the end I’ll either be an expert, or a drunk. Three guesses…?