Early Cruising in 1981

Pleasureable trip aboard The Lady with Diana, Daniel and Debbie

This seemed to be the first real family trip aboard Merdeka, which was renamed ‘The Lady’ during the holiday. Considering that I was still in business and dealing with its problems in 1981, I did well to find time for a family holiday although I seem to have had it for a year or two to work on. I was obviously in a relaxed mood as no mention was made of work but I suppose that this was in the days before mobile phones and John Lamb must have been looking after the shop. I was obviously tussling with some initial problems with the boat I had taken over, but was equally obviously very pleased and proud of it. We got a good distance down the lower Ouse, Up the Cam and along the Lodes on what started as a damp month but ended up warm and sunny. The kids were swimming in the river and at riverside pools and Diana was catering with takeaway meals as a first preference. I was also making comparisons with how the river places were some time before as previous trips had been made in Utopia mainly before I had started the business in 1977 and things had changed as far as the boatyards and boat builders were concerned. We were stopping at old favourite haunts such as Godmanchester, Waits Quay, Ely and Hilgay. Much was still the same and this was an apparently idyllic era for me and my family. Cruising 100 miles on 10 gallons was good going. 


Friday August 7th 1981

Cruise from Paxton to St Neots Riverside Park in The Lady

Our former boatSet off upstream and through the Paper Mill Lock. How steady the new winch performs in the guillotine gate – but still the number of turns remains unchanged and tiresome. The final rain finds the slight leak in the aft cabin- starboard; but the lady runs steadily in the slight breeze. We moor in the St Neots riverside park, upstream of the bridge and within range of the shops for a takeaway dinner.


Saturday August 8th 1981

Cruise from St Neots Riverside Park to Godmanchester via Buckden and Brampton locks in strong flow aboard The Lady

Still with fine mist and drizzle on a damp day. The repairs to the cabin leak show a marked improvement. The sea toilets are giving trouble fore (with leaks) and aft (with stiffness and difficulty in pumping). We set off downstream and back to Paper Mill lock where Daniel helps for the first time to good effect. After stopping at The Haylings for some forgotten items we moor to some trees on the right bank a little downstream and eat lunch. We operate Offord lock alone and take on water at Buckden Marina. Although determined to spend a tidy sum on chandlery as I refit the Lady, their stores are disappointing and we end with a Seasearcher magnet, a water fill label plate and an out of date river guide. Their new building and stock are woefully inadequate. The ducks and ducklings woo our bread successfully.

Daniel and DebbieAt Brampton the side sluice is running fast and several cruisers making their way upstream are distressed by it. The lady shudders and shrugs off the challenge but she has yet to tackle the hazard from the more difficult downstream approach. We moor in our favourite Godmanchester lockwards of the main moorings and notice the speed of the flow when we try to fish (with rod and seasearcher). A brisk walk produces a new calor gas kettle for the galley; and we settle down to sleep against the sound of the weir’s flow.


Sunday August 9th 1981

Cruise from Godmanchester to St Ives Town Quay aboard The Lady

We awake to another fine drizzly day and reverse the boat to moorings opposite the sand pits for better child surveillance. The toilets continue to give trouble but cooker, fridge and other facilities seem fine. The electrics do not seem to charge the main battery quickly and I begin to regret not having charged it prior to departure. We leave in late morning and experience the phenomena of Godmanchester lock alone. The guillotine gate is smooth and steady and noticeably better than St Neots though almost as long-winded. We cruise in fine drizzle and are “assisted” by youths at Houghton Lock. The windscreen becoming impossibly wet we pause at Hemingford Grey for lunch before donning waterproofs for Hemingford Lock and on to St Ives. The Waits being full, we moor at the Town Quay and note how quiet the location has become with the completion of the bypass and bridge. The stone bridge is now reduced to single way traffic outward bound from the centre, except Buses and Taxis who have exemption. The seasearcher makes its best catches to date of a spike and pipe of iron. The first wasps of our journey are discovered and the ringed pigeon, ducks and swans check in for dinner. The weather clears for the night and we notice how low the batteries have become, the midnight movie having taken its toll.


Monday August 10th 1981

Repairs, improvements and rest in St Ives for The Lady as the weather improves

We wake to sunshine and a marked improvement in the weather. We are resolved to improve the battery capacity and return the Lady’s toilets to a dignified condition. The town Quay is splendidly placed for shopping and after making our purchases and phoning L.H.Jones in warning we cruised across for help. The bearded engineer, Ivor, is inside before we know it, has the forward toilet to bits and pronounces it dead. A part is ordered together with a repair kit of gaskets for our bottom drawer. The front toilet trouble is traced to a cock being closed and, apart from some pump gaskets, it is cleared and commissioned. I realise how expensive it is to moor at a chandlers with time to spare! At the HelmWe buy four fenders, size 12 boating shoes, hull repair and cleaning compound, a Diesel name plate and many other accessories. After returning to Waits quay, town centre shopping adds an auxiliary battery (to go with the battery switch) and leads to match. So now the Lady has main and auxiliary batteries, labelled water and diesel fillers and … new plug chains. We spend an evening of relaxed splendour with enhanced battery power and working toilets en suite. Diana, Daniel an Deborah have been swimming and a second trip with me is foiled by the discovery that the St Ives taxi is an extinct species – RIP. An evening row on the Lady’s tender (now with new rowlocks) reveals the Waits back water. A local tells me that it was dug by hand as a relief channel by Italian prisoners in the Great War. Now silted up and overgrown, it is just navigable by dinghy until it rejoins the main river upstream of the sea-scout camp to make an interesting round trip. The sea scout enclosed water used to be the town swimming pool until a local doctor complained of ear infections in the town’s children. I barely start the task of cleaning the Lady’s hull after a Kentuckian takeaway before darkness falls at 9.00pm.


Tuesday August 11th 1981

St Ives to Ely aboard The Lady on a hot and sunny day

We awake to a very cold and dewy dawn and thank the fact that our mahogany cabins protect us from the condensation of our fibreglass neighbours. It is soon very hot and sunny and I clean the surrounds and hull of the Lady’s starboard side whilst Diana goes shopping. On her return, we complete the task and fit two new white fenders. The Lady now has her “good side” which is by far her best for portraits. Alas each achievement like this reminds of us the work still to do but I now take heart from the perfect electrics and bathroom toilet. We swim today at St Ivo recreation centre and take the opportunity to shampoo our hair and bathe  to acceptable standards. We walk back via a woody path which passes the gardens of many fine houses and the “Italian channel” before emerging at St Ives Parish church. What a pity that the modern habit closes these churches to casual visitors. We eventually set off just too late for the 12.30-1.30 St Ives lock lunch hour and use the delay to take on replacement of the normally huge usage we achieve. We cruise briefly through the locks at St. Ives, Brownshill and Hermitage thankful that 20/30pence tips to the lock keepers save our backs. Diana points out that the lock keepers each have a sideline these days – pot plants at St Ives, tee shirts at Brownshill and Hermitage and I notice the youth and education that they display. An obvious sign perhaps of the recession as the lock keepers used to be a downbeat and grumpy crew. The Old West was as tortuous as usual but, with the sliding roof back and the blissful weather the hours to Ely pass peacefully by. The Lady has not been through St Ives lock in our hands before and all keepers express admiration and comment that they have not seen her before. We learn that Merdeka is Malaysian for freedom and we agree that whilst varnish is a lot of work it is worth it. Interesting statistics as our very special Lady chugs through the Old West. RPM – 1000; Temperature 190oF. Fuel Pressure 90; Oil Pressure 42 Speed 31/2Knots; Charging 3 amps. We feel the need to keep the speed this low because of the large displacement surges. We arrive at Ely at 8.00pm and moor right in the centre and starboard to shore so that I can attack the Lady’s other cheek tomorrow. We leave Daniel to fish and babysit while we eat sausages peas and chips at the “Cutter” pub literally 3 yards away. An evening stroll along the moorings reveals much demolition has occurred on the Elysian island. It was noticeable that F.W.Carrington has given up boatbuilding in Erith, his yard becoming a hire base for Anglo-Welsh cruisers, and we wonder if the same fate has befallen Lytton boatbuilders. We spot in failing light a very similar boat downstream of the Lytton bridge called Patience. It could be a 35ft version, but now I have to await tomorrow’s light. Finish 632nm.


Wednesday August 12th 1981

From Ely and up The Lark past Isleham aboard The Lady on another hot and sunny day

Another fine, hot and sunny day without the morning mist and dampness this time. We took advantage of the Port mooring to scrub and clean the Lady’s other side and replace the fenders. Although I regret that more painting has not yet been possible there is no doubting the very real difference that cleaning makes. Diana, Daniel and Deborah went shopping and to the new Ely swimming pool, now located the other side of town. I visited the Ely Boat Chandlers now run by a young couple and bought two new hinges and fibreglass cleaning fluid. We examined Patience (G5061) both from the bank and by pulling alongside. It is so similar, in beautiful condition as far as the varnish is concerned, and the only other boat of its kind that we have found. We pushed a note through the door and hope to hear from its owner so that we can compare notes. After lunch we took on water and cruised downstream a couple of miles and then up the River Lark his time determined to make the head of navigation. We found the fine crystal clear water a splendid reminder of how clean these tributaries are. Many good fish could easily be seen and the wildfowl enjoy the remoteness. Moorhen, Coots, Ducks, Geese, Swans, Dabchicks and a pair of Herons were spotted. The good weather softens the repetitiveness of the lower reaches when only Prickwillow moorings, bridge and bend break the monotony. After successfully battering our way against flotillas of recently cut weeds, we make Isleham sluice without the speedometer working. The footbridge is low and we enter the lock with only 4/5 inches to spare with the roof fully back. The Lady lock keeper reported that we were only the fourth boat this week and told us of the “Fen Blows” that could occur at this time of year when a red horizon would pervade (penetrate) the most tightly sealed windows. The nearest village was four miles away, the nearest town a great deal further and only their Range Rover could negotiate the farm track access at certain times of year. There is no doubting the splendid isolation of the Fens being the most remote country within the South East region. However the beautiful weather was matched by the pretty countryside upstream of Isleham. Tight turns and channels test the helmsman but made for a fascinating journey to the pretty moorings of the Pub – Jude’s Ferry. Here we satisfy hunger and our conscience with refreshment for the night. Start 632nm : Finish    nm(inaccurate)


Thursday August 13th 1981

Down The Lark from Jude’s Ferry to the main river and up the River Wissey to stay the night at Hillgay aboard The Lady on another warm but hazy day

A fine day, warm but hazy with little wind. An early start from Judes ferry brought us to Isleham Sluice by 8.30am to catch the ‘keeper unprepared. She had first to clear through a platform of weed from the weed cutting. As we were let down in this very slow operating lock we chatted about the locality. The area just downstream is a common fen where the villagers of Isleham (Pronounced “I-slam) graze their geese. Evidently they swear they can tell which are their geese and eggs but the lockkeeper suspects that the first one there at Christmas makes off with the best! It really is a bird sanctuary with all of the species previously mentioned in abundance together with Ringed Plover and Great Crested Grebe. At this time of year and weather they are all rearing their broods. A long cruise followed until we reached Prickwillow – a welcome feature of the Lark. Here the general store was as useful as ever and the ‘new’ pottery (opened five years ago) supplied handsome butter dishes as presents for our parents. They take special orders for plates decorated with particular legends for ornaments, anniversaries etcetera and will always show visitors around the pottery – a great interest for the kids. We pushed off to complete the cruise to the main river and on to Littleport Boathaven for fuel and water. On a friendly river it always the exception that proves the rule that reinforces the helpfulness that everybody shows. The owner of the Boathaven finds it necessary to ban hire cruisers from entering his marina, post signs insisting on 20p per water fill and retaining a manner that makes it obvious that he would ban the rest of us if he did not need visitors to make a living. Perhaps I was un-generous because he sprayed my decks with Diesel in an attempt to disperse it and perhaps he was angry with the mechanic who had just serviced his perfect pump and left it full of problems. After lunch we set off downstream, declining the inviting mouth of the Little Ouse and push on to the River Wissey and up to Hilgay. We had happy memories from Hilgay from many years ago and it was not long before the children were splashing around in their favourite swimming hole downstream of the old bridge. I say old bridge because again a new bypass has been built – this time for the A10. The new featureless concrete span is hardly any higher and I have mixed feelings about this ‘progress’. The moorings are quieter but I remember how passing traffic would linger to watch the children swim; often stopping to join in. Hilgay seems to lack a certain bustle. Anyway Daniel makes more friends and, like an aging performer, makes three last appearances in the river before coming out for good. I use the opportunity to catch up on some maintenance – a new coat of varnish for the front cabin, a good start on the internal chrome fittings and a facelift for our lifebelt – I must buy some roping for this. I finally have cause to be grateful for our auxiliary batteries. The poor reception of the test match flattened one battery. We settle for the night in Hilgay having had enough travel for now. Start 644.1nm Finish 660.6 nm.


Friday August 14th 1981

From Hilgay via Ely and Cam; up the Lodes to Wicken Fen aboard The Lady on another hot and sunny day

A very hot and humid day with quite scorching sun during the periods when the clouds cleared. A 9.45am start from Hilgay using auxiliary battery power and gas cylinder! It is notable to see how consumption of power runs ahead of you and rewarding to see our provision filling the breach. The batteries charge well during the long cruise from Hilgay to the Ouse and up to Littleport Boathaven. Our friendly boatyard proprietor supplies us with two new gas cylinders and some rope with which I secure the lifebuoy later in the day. He confesses to ‘owning’ the ubiquitous flock of ducks who he feeds in the winter. Although they lay plenty f eggs his huge St Bernard dogs tend to eat some of them. We cruise on upstream and stop at Ely for lunchtime fish and chips, replenishment of the wallet and a good opportunity for Diana and Daniel to go shopping. I purchase a set-top TV aerial which restores the picture on the boat T.V. to new splendour. We leave Ely at 4.00pm and after half an hour fork left up the River Cam. The new marina at Upware looks splendid but with many vacant places still. We lock up through Burwell Lock into the Reach and Burwell Lodes. The lockkeeper points out that the levels are within an inch or so at this time and advises us to concentrate on Burwell and Wicken Lodes as Reach is very shallow, weedy and without a turning point. We turn left into Wicken Lode and I wonder if we will ever make it. The weather is perfect for this but with only a few feet each side, a 33ft boat is quite a challenge. After a day of recuperation, the milometer gives up the ghost again – tangled with weed - but the propeller and shaft remain clear and, flushed with this success, we push on right into Wicken Fen. It is a pity that other boats do not cruise to these remoter parts as it would help to keep them open and weed-free. We turn the boat right at the end, churning up the silt to the joy of the fish and waterfowl. Judging by the water movements, these antics gather the fish before the boat and herd them together. We settle to the hot and clammy evening with windows closed and TV bright and clear; for Wicken breeds a virile species of gnat! S.m 644.1 f.m. 660.6


Saturday August 15th 1981

Wicken Fen via Cambridge to Bridge Hotel Clayhithe aboard The Lady on a misty warm day that ends with rain

With Debbie and Daniel at ClayhitheAnother fine, still and sunny day that started a little misty and grew warmer. We leave Wicken Fen after a one hour tour of the nature reserve and a shop in the gift shop at the entrance. It seems that the insects have a fine history, strong local affiliation and worthy of research. That is to say that we read of Samuel Pepy’s journeying to Fenland in the 1650’s and complaining of virile insects; the gift shop lady and lockkeeper are still not immune and the Wicken Fen warden hut has questionnaires (and plastic bags) seeking participants in a mosquito survey. Even so we still enjoyed our foray into this remote and natural area and negotiated our exit into the River Cam without incident. Once through Burwell Lock we turned upstream, lunching at the Clayhithe Bridge, before reaching Cambridge in mid-afternoon. Proceedings are progressed by the discovery that the £3.30 toll for the Cam is double if we do not leave by the evening. We moor alongside the riverside playing grounds and swim in the cold open air pool. Deborah and Daniel are delighted and wear themselves out. We cruise downstream to the Bridge Hotel, Clayhithe once more, which is one of the few places where we can moor, leave the kids and have an evening meal. Having got merry on a shared bottle of Rose D’Anjou we rest outside on the lawn until we retire to the sound of the first rain for several days. Start 660.6nm. Finish 674nm


Sunday August 16th 1981

Bridge Hotel Clayhithe via Cam and Old West river to St Ives aboard The Lady on a sunny but windy day that tested our boat handling

Another sunny day but this time cooler with a strong wind which tested our helmsmanship for the first time. We had enjoyed a very pleasant evening and overnight stay at The Bridge Hotel, Clayhithe, and the rain had not penetrated the roof as feared. We set off at 9.30am and made our way down the Cam through Bottisham lock and on to Popes Corner. Turning up the River Ouse we make the long journey across the Old Bedford River; taking note of distances and times for a future private cruising guide. This long journey in high wind was made a little easier by the very good depth of water present. It still remains a tortuous route and we stopped for lunch on the longest stretch between Twenty Pence bridge and High Bridge; tarrying long enough to watch an hour of excellent test cricket on a portable television. I am reminded that during our journey we have not once been overtaken. The Lady makes the best of all conditions combining power for the open tidal reaches with causing minimum wash on the narrow stretches. We lock through Hermitage and stop for the first time at the new Erith Marina. A nervous proprietor and wife serve us diesel (5 gallons – 10 in all this trip) and the first milk we have had for three days. The owners seem to be tussling with new pontoon and landing stages in this difficult tidal stretch. We then made the last leg of the journey through Brownshill Staunch and St Ives lock before mooring at our favourite Waits Quay at 6.00pm. In all we travelled 21.6 nautical miles at speeds of 4 and 5 knots. Diana and Daniel set forth to purchase takeaway meals from the Kentuckian while I watch the closing overs of another exciting test match day. The final hours are spent cleaning our older fenders and I turn to bed wondering if our toilet parts will have been received tomorrow. Start 694.2 nm Finish 714.8


Monday August 17th 1981

Waits Quay St Ives to Godmanchester playground aboard The Lady on a sunny more settled day

A warm sunny day, not the hottest we have had but without the wind of yesterday. We awake at Waits Quay and Diana and Daniel use the launderette opposite while I catch up on yesterdays papers. After the breakfast we spend the morning shopping and relaxing and I watch the cricket again. Lunch is obtained from Diana’s favourite takeway – the Kentuckian and at 1.00pm we combine for a family swim at the St. Ivo Pool. We walk back to the Waits and cast off for L.H.Jones marina. While Diana fills the water supply I enquire at the workshop and am pleased to find that our toilet parts have arrived. I also purchase stick-on lettering for the christening of the boat. We make our way upstream struggling slightly against manual locks which are set against us. Through Hemingford and Houghton Lock until we finally lock through Godmanchester lock and are pleased to find that there is a perfect mooring alongside the playground. Daniel and Deborah play there, finding many friends amongst the other boating children. Discovery craft ‘Heron’ has preceded us from St Ives. I clean the stern of the boat, remove the Merdeka nameplate and affix the new name. The Lady is now herself. The bilge pump raises her an inch in the water as I resolve to tend it more often. Start: 715.8 Finish 703.


Tuesday August 18th 1981

Godmanchester playground to Paxton aboard The Lady on a breezy day with sunny intervals

The last day of our present voyage. A breezy cooler day with sunny periods but increasingly cloudy – we may have had the best of the weather. We rest up this morning so that the children can enjoy the riverside playground for the last time and so that the Lady can have her front toilet refurbished. The repair kit was used completely and with the new base assembly, it now works perfectly. We set off after a fish and chip lunch at 2.15 noting that we had previously clocked over 100 nautical miles. Cruising at 5-51/2 Knots at 12-1300 rpm we make good time through Brampton Lock and arrive at Buckden Marina at five to three. Although we stop for over an hour and fill our water tanks the chandlery is unable to tempt any further expenditures. We note the number of Ely Marina Ltd Discovery-class cruisers on the river. Names ‘Venus of Ely 1-5’, they appear in quite new condition. I wonder if Lytton Boatbuilders (1980) Ltd have sold their complete stock across to a sister company and have finished or will finish trading. We lock through Offord and lead a procession of boats through the remaining reaches to arrive back at 5.20pm. The evening is spent cleaning the port side between unloading sessions. Start 703.2nm : Finish 710nm