I was feeling a bit stressed and tired when I boarded SAS flight 1523 from Stockholm to London, but the ride above the clouds was tonic. Time to rest, to think, to do a bit of work, to reflect. Music helped, as it always does – Vivaldi, the great crooner Linda Ronstadt, Sibelius. I was calm and refreshed when we touched down at Heathrow at the end of the afternoon.
Hopped the Heathrow Express train into London, then the Tube, then what was supposed to be an express train to Cambridge, but it poked along. I was headed to the Judge Business School for the third time in 2011, this trip to give a lecture in an executive-education program. Because it was a quick trip, I did not stay at Sidney Sussex College, but at the hotel the school arranged. Got there about 9:30, quick change of clothes, and out for a pint at my favored pub, The Eagle. I brought the newspaper in my iPhone; I had read most of the day’s news earlier, but have long enjoyed The Times’ science coverage, and it seemed fitting to read it in the pub where Darwin, Watson and Crick, and other science giants tippled. Two articles stood out, one about a Minnesota-born expert on dolphins, whose current effort is to see if she can communicate with them; the other was truly remarkable, about an artist, Lonni Sue Johnson, who lost her memory when viral encephalitis attacked her brain several years ago. Much of the article was about memory and identity, and that hit home, because my memory is very much a part of my identity. Lonni Sue was a successful artist before she got sick, and she had to re-learn how to walk, talk, and eat – and then to draw, to create, to use her art to make us smile: “Two months after she was taken ill, her mother took a green marker and drew a triangle; the younger woman took a blue marker and copied it.” She re-learned quickly. Just amazing.
The pub kitchen had closed, so I ambled a few blocks to Dojo, an Asian-fusion place I had visited twice before. The place was empty of customers and they were mopping up, but they kindly allowed me to sit down and tuck into a couple of satay skewers and a huge mound of Singapore noodles. Yum! And a good base for a solid sleep.
Up the next day and out the door to Judge Business School. I found “my table” in the second-floor common room, and set up the office. At nine, I met Jochen Menges, a young German friend now on the faculty. We had a good yak about his new daughter, Elisa, about his research, about my working for a small company after decades with big ones (workplace is his focus). At noon, two exec ed people collected me and we walked a few blocks to lunch with the students. My original Judge host, Simon Bell, now chair of marketing at the University of Melbourne in Australia, was just finishing the morning session. We ate a quick lunch and it was time to stand and deliver to 14 students; I received their bios in advance, and they were an impressive lot, so I was really on my toes. It went well. We had a coffee break and I yakked a bit with a few students, then rolled suitcase and backpack to the railway station and onto the 4:00 train to Birmingham, bound for some fun: three days on the Dame Daphne, a 48-foot canal boat, or narrowboat, with the vessel’s owners, longtime mate John Crabtree (who I’ve often described in these pages) and his former law partner Andrew Manning Cox. I had been on the “DD” once before, in August 2007, and was really looking forward to it.
The early fall ride west from Cambridge was pleasant, past the massive Ely Cathedral, sheep and cattle grazing, farmers tending to field chores, wind turbines churning slowly. I cued Dvorak’s From the New World, which is splendid music for traversing countryside, whether or not one is in the New World. Brought this journal up to date, did some work, and in no time we were in Birmingham. Like other big cities, it has several train stations, so I walked a few blocks through its U.S.-like downtown (it looks familiar in part because of World War II bombing) to Moor Street Station and hopped on a local train, riding 18 minutes southeast to Lapworth.
John and Andrew were waiting on the platform, with hugs and greetings. I had seen John just four months earlier, but had not seen Andrew for a couple of years. We threw my stuff in the boot (trunk), drove a mile to a parking lot, and set off down the towpath of the North Stratford Canal to The Boot Inn, a gastropub, for a fine meal and a lot of laughs. After dinner we reversed course and ambled to Kingswood, the junction of the Grand Union and Stratford canals, into a marina, and onto the Dame Daphne. She was as I remembered her, but in 2007 six were onboard; this time the three of us had loads of space. I had an enormous double bed in the aft, and was asleep in no time.
Friday morning began with a bit of low fog, but it soon cleared to a lovely and warm autumn day. We had coffee and a bowl of granola, and set off on the canal, motoring south at two or three mph. We stopped to fill the water tank and empty the toilet tank, then headed into the first of almost 20 locks we traversed that day. I quickly re-learned the downstream locking sequence: if the lock was empty, winch open the paddles to fill the lock to the level of the boat; open the gate to allow the boat to enter (clearance was less than six inches on either side); close the gate and lower the paddles; winch open the paddles at the opposite end, draining the lock; open the downstream gate, and proceed. Like playing in a bathtub!
At noon we sat down to an English breakfast of sausages, bacon, fried egg, and beans, then moved on. Part of the fun was chatting with other boaters and people on the towpath, a varied lot that included a few Americans but mostly Brits, many with their dogs (I was missing MacKenzie a lot, so I petted a lot of hounds that day). About 2:30 we tied up in the hamlet of Lowsonford and walked a couple of blocks to a pub for a pint, a perfect stop. We continued south at a very calm pace, sun dappling the fields. Sheep and cattle grazed. It was a timeless scene. I felt like I was in a BBC period drama, one of those great shows we Yanks watch on Masterpiece Theatre.
We moved through more locks before turning around near Wootten Wawen about 5:30. I took the tiller for the first time, and it was good to be pilot, north a couple of miles to the tiny burg of Preston Bagot, where we moored for the night. Walked over to the Crab Mill, another gastropub (and a place I knew from dinner four years earlier) for another great meal and even more laughs, yakking about past travels, the decline of the English language (something that aggrieved Andrew and me, but not John), and politics. Andrew is conservative and John and I are not, but as I noted in these pages a few weeks ago, the notion that we can’t be friends is just silly.
At 10:30 on Saturday morning, we hopped in John’s car (he had ridden his bike, which was lashed to the boat’s roof, to fetch it) and motored 35 miles to his house in Worcestershire, hugs for his sweet wife Diana, and kids Jessica and Robbie. Took much-needed showers, dressed up a bit, and headed to see the Worcester Warriors rugby team play the Harlequin, a London team. It was my second Warriors match in four months, and was a lot of fun. Unhappily, our team lost, but it was still a big time. Drove back to John’s, fetched my stuff, and Andrew and I headed back to the boat (John stayed with family). Changed clothes and motored two miles into Henley in Arden, a historic town – the Forest of Arden was a favorite place of Henry VIII. We had a big lunch at the match, so only needed small plates at the Blue Bell pub, which fit perfectly because without a booking the proprietress could only grant table for an hour. We were still thirsty at 8:15, so walked down High Street to the White Swan, a very agreeable place in a really old half-timbered building (when we left, we noticed a sign that read “serving Henley for over 650 years,” which caused me to marvel).
Andrew slept in on Sunday morning, and I caught up on some reading, including a very brief history of the British canal system from Nicholson’s, the authoritative source on canal travel. The 2,000-mile system was built in the late 18th and early 19th century, just in time for the railways to make them obsolete. British Waterways, a public corporation, now owns and operates the canals. An act of Parliament in March 1793 enabled our route, the Stratford Canal, and it was finished in about 1820. Within 15 years, the railway was already grabbing business, and a couple of decades later the Great Western Railway bought the company. The last working boats were in the 1930s. Happily, a couple of decades after that, visionaries saw that increased leisure time and rising incomes might revive interest in a slow but wonderful way to see the countryside. The National Trust, Britain’s venerable and excellent preservation organization, got involved in many canal restorations, including the Stratford, which reopened in 1964. Later that day, John and I read a wonderful quotation by one of the leaders of the Stratford project: “We were not experts, therefore we did not know what could not be done.” Amen to that.
John rejoined us about 10:30. Rain was just beginning to fall. At 11:30, one of Andrew’s longtime friends, Justine, joined us. She was a nice addition to the all-male crew. John gave me the tiller again, and for the first time I guided us into a lock, with only one gentle bump. A simple task, but, whew, I was sweating! We moored for lunch, then resumed in pelting rain. We Texans don’t get wet much, but I’m happy to be sodden. In no time we were back at their marina, cleaning up (my task was to empty the toilet holding tank, a chore embraced with vigor!).
Justine needed a ride back to her car, so I hopped on John’s bike, which had been lashed to the barge roof, pedaling the 4.5 miles to Andrew’s car in Preston Bagot in no time. The bike ride afforded a good perspective on the canal and the small distance we covered over two days. I paused to take a few snaps, like at the Yarningale Aqueduct, where the canal flows in a bridge across a small stream. The side of the bridge read “Moseley Iron Company 1834,” and I read the story on a nearby sign: a flood on the stream wiped out the previous wooden aqueduct, so they rebuilt with iron, and the canal was only closed for a month. It was a reminder of the remarkable engineering of a long-gone era, before motorways and high-speed trains and efficient supply chains.
John and I said goodbye to Andrew and drove back to the White House, John’s and Diana’s wonderful old home in Crowle. Diana and the kids welcomed the boatmen, and we tucked into a chicken dinner. Watched a bit of BBC and clocked out early. Up at 6:30, down to breakfast. Robbie was giving his tortoise a bath. Jessica and Jamie soon arrived. All three kids looked smart in their school uniforms. The kitchen was buzzing, then Diana rounded them up, and suddenly it was silent. And lonely. Time to head for home. John, who works from an office in an adjacent old building, rounded me up at eight, and drove me to the Shrub Hill railway station in Worcester. Caught the 8:39 train to Reading, then a bus to Heathrow, and the Silver Bird delivered me back to Linda and MacKenzie at 8:30 that evening. After 16-plus days, it was really good to be home. Really good.