Disused canal Neath © James Forshall
Early on Tuesday morning Catherine drove me to the station to catch the first train to Barnstable. We kissed goodbye. We would not see each other for another six weeks.
In Illfracombe the sun was shining and there was a good breeze: a beautiful day for a sail. No sign of the tri – marin, but it was well before the departure time. Catherine had made me promise to buy a life preserver in case there were not enough to go round on the boat. The two chandlers had closed, I was told, but eventually I found a man selling fishing rods who was opening his shop. ‘ Look no further’, he said. We went inside and after rummaging around he produced a life jacket. It opened automatically once you were in the water. ‘But can you blow it up like a rubber ring if it doesn’t open automatically?’
The man thought so. We looked for the tube and found it. ‘ It’s got a whistle too, see?. Here’s the automatic inflation device. This is for hooking you up to a hellicopter’. Well that bit looked very solid. But there were also some other instructions which I found rather worrying. You had to make sure that various parts of the automatic inflation device were aligned before entering the water, and that no part of the life belt had already been punctured, which I could not imagine doing without blowing it up and putting it through a bucket of water to see if bubbles came out of it. ‘ Does it have an instruction manual?’ It did, a long one too, which might have been written by a relation of the author of the Ikea manuals…..and it cost £79. I gulped. ‘Well how much is your life worth’, asked the shop keeper. ‘Not much’ I thought…..but a promise is a promise.
I tried to stuff it into my rucksack but there was no room. I rigged it up across the top, where it lay like a small dead seal.
Back in the harbour there was still no sign of the tri – marin. Time for a call. ‘ How are you?’, asked the skipper, which by now I knew was sailing talk for ‘ Are you sitting down?’ And sure enough although the engine had been replaced, the new one although working perfectly the night before was not working this morning. That was a blow, but rather the kind that doesn’t hurt at first. ‘No, we’re scuppered, absolutely scuppered’, said the skipper. Nothing to be done. My mind started to search through the Jack Aubrey novels for similar situations, of which there were a few but somehow the solutions did not apply here. Lucky old Jack. No matter what other tribulations he had had to put up with faulty outboards weren’t one of them.
And now I’d have to do something about the life jacket. I hurried back to the shop.
‘Look I’m awfully sorry. The boat is not working and the trip has been cancelled can you take this back.’ The shopkeeper looked a bit mournful but said that he would. It was so nice of him that I was moved to part exchange it for one of his air rifles. ‘Can you kill a rat with one of those?’ I asked, thinking of the scavengers below Catherine’s bird table. ‘Oh Yes. No problem but honestly it’ll be simpler if we just give you the money back.’ He really was very kind.
So there I was. I could walk round to Swansea where my brother was waiting for me, except that he would not be there when I got there, and there were many people I had agreed to meet along the route further north too. The harbour master told me there were no other boats. ‘ Nasty bit of water. No call for it. No one does it’.
Nothing for it but the train. In the taxi to Taunton the phone went for the taxi driver.
‘No Dear’, he said, ‘I put the dog in the cupboard and the food on the table…..Yes, Dear.’
At Taunton the humiliation of taking a train began to bite. I would still be walking the same distance though. I had checked before with the secretary of the Land’s End to John O’Groats Association, who had liked the idea of cutting out a bit by sailing across the Bristol Channel. ‘Nice one’, he had said, but I couldn’t see him agreeing to me taking a train for part of the journey. It really hurt. I tried to comfort myself with the thought that it would not make any difference to the amount of miles that I said that I would do.
Johnny was at the railway station. He had had a severe haircut while waiting. It was 4.00 p.m. We set off at a cracking pace, Johnny in the lead, hoping to make up for some of day which I had lost due to engine trouble.
Heading towards Neath we met Carl pushing a bike. He was very friendly. ‘ This excercise has given me an energy rush…..If I didn’t have a daughter to look after. I’d come with you.’ And I think that he would have done so, cheerfully pushing his bike all the way.
We soon picked up the old canal, either the Glan y Wern or the Tennant, which takes a northerly direction out of Neath. It was covered with a yellow lilly with a cupped yellow flower, called the Bullhead lily.
Yellow Flag Iris by the canal
We ate at Carlo’s Fish Bar; cod and chips. Delicious. I bought a couple of deep fried sausages to stash away for breakfast. We carried on through suburbs until a mile or two out of Aberdulais we struck north west up the hill hoping to join the Roman road. We walked up through fields and woods. The light was beginning to fail and we needed a torch to see the detail on the map. On a flat bit of close cropped grass about 300 m above the valley we laid out our bedding. Midgies gathered around us. We covered ourselves in Smidge, pulled our bivvy bags over our heads and slept.
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All photographs © James Forshall