I first met her in Tollesbury and immediately fell for her. She was an Essex girl through and through but not like all the others, although she was shallow. As far as I could see then there were only two problems. There was a big age difference—fifty-five years. She was born in 1904 and I was ten back then in 1959. None of this mattered to me but the second problem would be trickier: my Dad loved her too.
We had all come, my Dad, Mum, brother, sister and me, to Tollesbury. We often did to look at the boats and to hear the oystercatchers and the curlews, to play along the winding mud paths that edged the saltings. That spring morning it was cold crisp and clear.
As usual the tide was out. I never really understood that. It didn’t seem to matter when we arrived; the tide was invariably out revealing expanses of dark grey greasy, beautifully evil-smelling mud. Usually that meant time to explore the paths and creeks and to gaze in some awe at the huge hulks of boats left to spend the last of their days in these wonderful safe anchorages.
There were old smacks and bawleys, the odd Thames barge and even, to my never-ending delight, the hulls of fine-lined, multi-crewed J-Class yachts. It never seemed sad that these once proud working and leisure boats should end up here. It seemed right that the community that provided the men to sail them should welcome them back at the end of their working lives. The ribs of an even earlier generation of boats bore witness to the fact that this was the way they did things in these parts.
But today was different. We were meeting someone. Dad drove the big Humber Super Snipe estate past the Hope pub and through the gate in the sea wall. He parked up alongside the four distinctive sail lofts and we all piled out with, in my case, a mixture of trepidation and excitement. I was not sure about meeting new people but I had caught the mood of expectation from Dad and Mum.
We ran up the steps to one of the lofts. These large simple three storey timber sail lofts were shiplapped against the weather and raised on great concrete piles above the level of all but storm driven floods. Dad was shaking hands with a large smiling man wearing paint-spattered trousers and a fisherman’s smock. He invited us all in through huge sliding doors.
It wasn’t the vast space that captivated me; it was the smell. A glorious mixture of paint, anti-fouling, tarred twine, varnish, rubber waders and damp canvas sails engulfed us. We found that the man was called Ron. I had never met a Ron; it sounded funny. Ron took us to look at a huge set of freshly varnished spars. There was a long wooden mast complete with a button top; a huge and heavy boom with strange and elaborate wooden fixings the purpose of which I could only guess at; a gaff with the largest jaws I had seen; a smaller spar that was less than six feet long and an even smaller yoke-shaped spar that turned out to be cross-trees.
Next to them were two full canvas bags and the most enormous white, worn, canvas main sail. In the corner of the loft was a huge pile of rope, rags, tins, kapok life-jackets and what looked like mattresses.
‘Your foresails are in those bags and as you can see the rest is ready for you.’
Ron didn’t speak like an Essex man. He was probably from Hertfordshire like us, I decided. But what did he mean ‘ours’? What use was all this stuff? We only had a little dinghy and that was only a rowing boat we borrowed from Frost and Drake, the local boatyard. Fine for exploring the creeks at high tide but you couldn’t fit sails—let alone these monsters.
But I had no time to ask for we were off outside. We followed Ron into the mud flats. It was not only hulks and big boats that found their way to the Tollesbury shoreline. Nearer in, the saltings were used by small pleasure craft and the finger creeks and pathways provide an excellent if muddy tidal marina.
My brother and I would argue over the merits of each dinghy and small boat. We would hardly give the motor boats a second look. Dad said sail was the thing and that was good enough for us. But we did argue about the sailing boats. Bryan was a modernist; after all he was seven and a half. He preferred the shiny new glass fibre boats with their aluminum spars. Me, I was a traditionalist. I had seen rather more of life, and only the solidity and dependability of a proper wooden boat would do for me. But then we would argue about anything, Bryan and me.
We struggled along a muddy dyke in single file. Ron led on to a planked walkway supported on large wooden posts. Dad, Bryan and I followed. Mum trudged a little behind keeping a firm hold on Kate who was four and a half and fearless. Left to herself she would ‘explore’ up to her armpits in the mud so Mum held on to her, and being the eldest I thought it my duty to look out for her too. I always took duty seriously.
The wind whistled across the flat landscape, and the slap slap of halyards on masts joined the curlew cries and the ever-slurping mud to create the signature tune of the swatchways. Only the masts of the boats and the odd withy raised themselves above the saltings. But it wasn’t dull. There was such a lot of sky, clear and blue with white cumulus clouds today, stretching from horizon to horizon. Tomorrow was just as likely to be grey streaked and stormy. Whatever it showed you, there was so much of it that you were bound to be swept up in its mood.
Ron stopped and we all bunched up on the dyke looking down at a boat nestling in the mud. I couldn’t believe it. Was this what we had come to see? Was Dad really interested in buying this one? She was gorgeous, almost thirty feet long and a traditional wooden boat with—to my eyes—just glorious lines. Alright she had a blunt stern and was broad in the beam. She had a flat bottom with no obvious keel and she had funny large metal plates hung on each side. But she was long with a beautiful rakish bow and had a large cockpit with seats enough for us all. Her cabin was low and clean-lined with real portholes. It extended from the cockpit all the way forward to the mast—or where the mast should have been. I realised now her mast was the one we had seen in the sail loft. I always was quick on the uptake. Forward of the mast hole was a large square fore-hatch and a real capstan. Just to make it perfect for me there was a stove pipe with a coolie hat cowl. Just like Joe, Bill and Pete had on the Death and Glory.
To me she was a vision of loveliness, a genteel shabby loveliness.
She was a symphony in grey and rust. Old grey-painted sides matched old grey-painted coachroof and decks. The cockpit was grey with flaky black-painted woodwork, and those strange metal plates were painted grey and pitted and streaked with rust. All the metalwork was painted grey—the shroud plates, the fairleads, even the tiller were all grey. And her name was nowhere to be seen.
‘There she is. Will you come aboard?’ We didn’t need asking twice and Ron and Dad helped us crowd into the cockpit. Ron opened the padlock on the cabin doors and slid back the hatch to the doghouse. Bryan and I fought to get the first view of the interior and were pulled out of the way by Mum for our troubles. Eventually we all went down the three steps to the cabin below and squeezed ourselves in round the table. The cabin was low and dim and the first thing I noticed was the black metal stove, unlit now, in the forward corner on the starboard side. At the foot of the companionway (a posh name for three steps, but that was what we called it) was a galley with a cooker on the port side and sink to starboard.
There were two narrow benches with mattresses on either side of the table and Ron showed us the storage lockers beneath. I got my first sight of the bilges. I was surprised at how close it all was. The only big boats I had been on had deep keels and deep smelly bilges. Here there was barely three inches below the floor boards to the slimy damp bottom planks.
A door divided the main cabin from the forepeak. Here was a fascinating space that went to a point right into the bows. There was a large double bunk with room to sit up only at the head end next to the mast. We all had to try it out. Your legs had to extend under the low fore deck. In the bow itself there was an open locker that held large amounts of heavy anchor chain, and a space for sails and rope.
Between the main and fore cabins was a hanging locker for clothes on the starboard side and the most complicated and fiendish-looking toilet I had ever seen, with a Heath Robinson arrangement of levers, pumps and handles to operate it. I thought it all looked wonderful and the damp and gloom of the surroundings was to me atmospheric, although I think Mum had other views. But then it happened. Dad looked at Mum and said he thought it had potential. She agreed. Dad said the price was fine and he shook Ron’s hand.
‘But what’s she called?’ I asked.
Ron pulled out a pair of name plates from a locker behind a berth.
On them was carved the name of the boat that was to provide us with forty years of service.
The boat was called ‘Nan’. She was straight out of an Arthur Ransome story. Perhaps I would be a Death and Glory boy or, better still, maybe we would mean to go to sea.
From Travels with my Nan by Nick Imber