Reg was driving and we could see people quite clearly on the town’s pavements next to the River Bure which the map said was a good place to stop and explore Great Yarmouth and eat in waterside inns. I just hoped they’d let me in. Reg found a vacant spot and had his sons tie up to the bollards front and back. It was getting quite dark but I could vaguely see another warning notice saying something about tides, but thought we wouldn’t get swept away because Reg’s sons were Scouts and had tightened us up well with some strong knots. After changing, we headed off and found a good pub five minutes away, but they wouldn’t let me in so we sat outside and waited for the food dad had ordered to be brought.
My pie and chips were delicious and I even got to mop up dozens of chips that the others had left. Dad even let me taste his beer but it was awful and made me shudder. The two men laughed at me, “I’ll never drink that again – ever,” I grimaced prophetically. I think my dad and Reg might have had a bit too much to drink and I was quite pleased when they announced it was time to turn in. Reg almost fell into our boat and dad had to help him to his bed in the boat’s pointy bit. I clambered happily into my bed and before long the boat echoed to snoring, farting and the odd cough but otherwise a welcome silence, as if everything was right with the world and all our troubles were behind us.
They certainly weren’t behind us – they were in front of us factually and metaphorically. At some time in the night, there was an almighty bang, like a firework going off, which woke me and I fell out of bed. I hadn’t done this for ages and hoped it didn’t mean I’d disgrace myself with the other problem I had. I sat on the floor listening, but nothing. It felt like we were moving and I sat there thinking about my embarrassing problem and whether I should head for the toilet, but it was crazily downhill, I must be dreaming and I was afraid I’d have that awful dream where I was going in to some public toilets, desperate ‘to go’. In the dream I was ever so pleased I’d found a public toilet. Funny why it was always a public toilet where I started peeing, before that familiar warmth enveloped me and I realised that yet again I’d wet myself. ‘Please God,’ I prayed, ‘don’t let me wet the bed this holiday.’ It was bad enough at home where I could run and confess to my mum, who’d change the bed and console me with a cuddle, but here with these ‘big boys’ I’d never live it down. But I decided I didn’t need to ‘go’ and after a struggle I managed to get back in to bed. Yet I had a job staying in. It was like the boat had been last night but downhill the other way, so I tucked my arm down by the side of the mattress and eventually went back to sleep.
I can’t remember what woke me, but I pulled back the curtain above Graham’s feet to look across the pavement, but I found myself looking across the river. Peter was on the other side – it was like a ‘Π’ shape where I was the horizontal dumpling between two long, cool ‘Sweets’. Anyway, I reached carefully across Peter’s feet and pulled his curtain back only to see a wall. I wandered out to the cockpit, unzipped the hood and there was the quayside two feet above us and we were facing back the way we had come. I was still trying to puzzle it out when my dad came and stood next to me, “Bloody hell – look there’s our mooring rope.” I followed his pointing finger and there, forty-odd feet behind us, was our rope dangling down and some way above the water, our brass deck cleat was still tied to it.
We climbed out on deck and inched our way to the front where two ragged holes marked the spot where our mooring cleat should have been. As we turned to go back to the cockpit, my dad saw one of several notices painted on the wall, just like the one I’d seen last night, but which I hadn’t read properly in the dark. It was quite clear now – it said: Warning this river is tidal with a distance between high and low water of ten feet. If you moor at high water, make sure you tie up with enough slack to allow your boat to drop with the tide. We hadn’t and it had dropped. It must have hung there almost out of the water before the forward cleat screws gave up the struggle, the front had plunged back into the water and I was thrown out of bed. If I had known in those wee small hours what was going on, they really would have brought about wee in the small hours, more from fear than lavatorial dreams.
When the Sweets surfaced, we told them the sorry tale, and decided to clear off before we were taken to be illiterate and a familiar phrase rang out, “Theym did’norta let citee toypes looze in bowts.”
We turned around and skedaddled up river to a welcome marina where my dad was able to fill her up with diesel and make up for what we’d used getting out of Great Yarmouth docks. They had a café there too, so we had breakfast while going over the previous day’s disasters. They didn’t have a cleat in the shop there, but said that the marina at Potter Heigham would most likely have one. We should have retrieved the one last seen swinging in the breeze at Yarmouth; we just hoped the name of our boat wasn’t stamped on that cleat that we’d left hanging for all to see and recognise somebody’s stupidity, worse still return it to the boatyard and blow our incompetence. But at least this calamity wasn’t seen to be my fault. Fortunately for me, Peter and Graham wrongly got the blame because the two adults on board should have been able to read the warning notices before we headed for the pub, even though they couldn’t read anything after staggering back.
Next stop Potter Heigham. Had we known exactly how we were going to stop there, I think we might have turned around and gone home. It was a nice day with only a slight breeze kicking the odd fleece up on the water. Dad said to take it easy because he wanted to arrive there for lunchtime. I remember seeing some quite big fish in the weed beds by the riverside and thought that if I concentrated on missing yachts and all waterborne things that could herald disaster; I might see if dad would buy me a fishing set.
I was chugging on at a very slow walking pace sorting out a list of good reasons why I should have a fishing rod, topmost being nice fried fish and chips of our own making and bottom of the list currently was to take me away from the steering. Reg was sitting up front with his back against the fore-cabin windows reading a book and he suddenly shouted to my dad, “Gord – quick, I can’t believe this bridge.” I throttled back and tried to get it in reverse but it wouldn’t engage – Reg sprang up and slapped his foot against the bridge but he had to duck before he got squashed. We carried on drifting through until the cockpit and the edges of the folded-down screen scraped along the underside of the bridge before almost landing in the cockpit with us. Dad got it in forward gear and put some power on so we wouldn’t get stuck underneath and we scraped through and moored up to take stock of the latest damage we’d inflicted on the poor old Temptress.
Father pushed the shattered cockpit screen back into place. Fortunately the glass or whatever material it was, remained undamaged but I could see the mahogany frame around the two panes, was no longer joined in a couple of places. Dad took solemn stock of what he would need to rectify everything and we headed off for lunch in the marina’s cafeteria.
The marina shop was huge and probably owned by the same people who’d built that stupidly low bridge perhaps with malice aforethought. I only knew one other bridge that was as low and that was a railway bridge over a road between Muchelney and Drayton, near Curry Rivel on the Somerset levels. Even I, as a nipper, could reach up and touch the main girders that spanned the road and cars could just pass underneath. Bigger things, if they didn’t want to rip their tops off, had to drive up and over the railway line via some gates. That wasn’t too bad because at least you had an option – at Potter Heigham there was but one other – turn around and go back. But at least we were through and dad seemed to have a trick up his sleeve for our return appointment with that bridge, but now the lure of the evocative-sounding Hickling Broad drew us on and would nearly consume one of our Sweets.
We passed by some wonderful waterside houses – some like mansions and also churches in the middle of nowhere. But Hickling Broad was nothing like any of us had pictured – just a huge expanse of water with yachts charging around willy-nilly. Then for no reason Peter fell in. I saw him go under but he didn’t come up. His father shouted and muttered he didn’t understand it, because he was a strong swimmer. We turned the boat around but still no Peter. His dad stripped down to his underpants and jumped in. He immediately bobbed about gargling curses because his glasses had fallen off and he thrashed around blindly, half drowning and shouting. Like lemmings, we all joined in except my dad, who couldn’t swim. I was amazed by the weeds which seemed to reach up as if trying to drag me under – then suddenly Peter appeared and we all got hauled back aboard. I was told that Peter had epilepsy, had fallen in and lain twitching in the weeds until Graham had found him and pushed him to the surface. We moored up for the night and for the first time we played a game of cricket, although Peter was feeling very fragile from his epileptic dive that could so easily have been fatal, just because he’d forgotten his tablets.
In the morning, we headed back to Potter Heigham and moored up short and away from prying eyes so that dad and Reg could set about repairs that almost amounted to a major overhaul. I was only able to scrounge 10 shillings and we three boys headed for the shop where I found I hadn’t enough money for a rod and reel but purchased a wooden frame with some line wrapped around it, some hooks and lugworms. The shop owner said that the fish around here were easily caught with bread flakes. I left my bits and pieces at the shop to be collected on our return, which was just as well because we got lost and at least my bait had been put back in the fridge. We wandered over to Potter Heigham station and watched a train deposit a few people but pick up nobody. We ran up on the bridge and watched the level crossing gates swing across the road before the train went off into the unknown – just as we did! Somehow we’d wandered off in the wrong direction, because we forgot we’d gone over the footbridge and changed platforms. Anyway, we found ourselves reaching the end of a narrowing lane which became a rutted track and we were just about to turn back when a tractor hove into view. The driver told us that if we continued and turned right after two hundred yards we’d get back to the main road where a left turn would soon have us standing on top of the canopy-busting bridge.
There was a fish and chip van parked in the marina and Graham used some pocket money to buy enough for all of us and we headed back to the boat after a diversion for my fishing gear. Dad and Reg were getting on like a house on fire and were just varnishing the repaired canopy. There was a new shiny cleat at the front and the huge dent caused by that weaving yacht had disappeared. We all sat on the grass to scoff the fish and chips while admiring their handiwork that covered a multitude of very naughty sins.
We tried some fishing that afternoon but neither bread or lugworms would tempt the fish onto the hook – it was a good job we’d had fish for lunch because we certainly wouldn’t be having it for dinner. We climbed aboard and dad took the boat and tacked on to the end of the queue waiting for the pilot to take boats through the bridge without collision. He was good that pilot, his path through the less than liberal space was almost the same each time and if he was lucky there was a balanced working – drop one off, bring one back and so on – but there has to be a balance in all things and we were like the scales of the Old Bailey – we did not balance for him,
“Zorry – that class a boats don’t go unner this bridge.”
“Well we’m already ’ere,” replied my dad in Somerset yokel dialect, hoping for sympathy, “so why cassn’t ee take it back again?”
“’Cos I dint bring ’er through,” said the pilot, “I saw thee knock her canopy off before and I’ll have to watch thee do it again – I’m sorry.”
“What do we do, then?” growled my father.
“We-ell if I were thee, I’d go and moor up again where you hid to fix her up. Good job by the way – pity thee’lI ‘ave to do it all again. Yes I’d moor-up and do a dance like the red injuns do but t’other way round so we ‘ave no rain over night – ’cos if we do thee’ll be stuck ’ere a fortnight. First thing, when the river’s at its lowest and no bugger’s around to see you ‘part from me, you can take her through slowly like. Oh and if thee wants a better chance of not undoing yer ‘andiwork you could try pumping some water in her bilges. I’d draw a line a foot ‘bove the waterline then chuck water in ’er like there’s no tomorrow – about two hundred gallons might do ee. Then ’er might get through but don’t blame I if ’er don’t.”
We didn’t bother with the rain-dance, we figured that bit was a joke, but dad reversed the pipes on the bilge pump and we took it in turns like shipwrecked sailors fighting for survival. We augmented this with a dribbling hosepipe from a nearby tap and four of us in a bucket chain. We grafted till well after dark when our redrawn plimsoll line disappeared and dad reckoned we ought to call a halt in case we sunk during our sleep.
Six in the morning we were ready for the off – well we weren’t ready ’cos that bloody line was two inches above the water again. How had that happened? Peter should have known – he was the bright spark. However, he was still off-colour and Graham had barely been at the school long enough to know how to separate salt from sand, let alone about temperature influence, pressure gradients and density of water. We pumped some more in until the pilot hollered, “You’ve got five minutes – my first booking’ll be ’ere then.”
Dad took the controls and even I could feel that the old tub was ponderously crabbing through the water. He headed for where the pilot started and the man yelled, “Better line ’er up and keep going ’cos with all that weight you’ll ‘ave to put on full power to get thee rudder to do anything or thee won’t be able to steer her – I’ll give ee a nudge with me pole to help but the rests up to thee.”
The bridge looked even smaller with hardly any light coming through and a dark reflection on the water. Dad kept close to the pilot’s barge then put on some power and steered the pilot’s course. The old man gave us the promised nudge to stop her tail from coming round and through we went safe and sound, apart from the folding canopy which this time landed with a crash at my feet in the cockpit. My father used those new words again, and a few more, before we moored up and he set to re-fixing the canopy while the rest of us bashed away at the bilge pump until we’d got rid of those two hundred gallons of water. “Dad, why didn’t you fix the canopy after we’d gone through the bridge?” He lunged for my lughole which he didn’t miss either.
Three hours later, after a cup of coffee, we headed off down the river, certain we would not moor up at Yarmouth and would turn right after the railway bridge so as to avoid the harbour. Nor would we have any encounters with retired admirals – real or imaginary. We had had enough and even the long journey home held promise – but we had survived.
I went back to Norfolk in my campervan four years ago. There’s a new road that follows the long-closed railway line. Apart from the evidence of strikes by a few more hapless boats on the underside, in the past half a century – it looks much the same as when I’d first seen it – except I’m sure there’s an indentation just above the arch where a size nine shoe once landed.
I hope you have enjoyed reading 'Broadside' which is from Short Fews 1, a collection of 8 humorous short stories and is available to buy on Amazon Kindle or if you still need convincing,
you can read more excerpts from Short Fews 1
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