Last night, we went to a party in Presteigne, ate cassoulet and generally had a nice mild time. This got me thinking about mild New Year’s, and how some people don’t like New Year because it can, on occasion, be anti-climactic.
Still the most anti-climactic New Year I’ve ever spent was Millennium night. The thing had been long in the planning. For much of the autumn of 1999, Perry Venus and I would spend weekends on a friend’s narrow boat, Midnight Lady, moving her from Whitchurch on the Llangollen down to Limehouse Basin . Midnight Lady had a berth booked in Limehouse Basin for Millennium Eve. There was to be a party, a splendid boat party. We would be right next to the Royal Thames…we would be as close as possible to the River of Fire… We would see Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second come gliding by on the Royal Barge… We would scarf up drugs and just about drown in booze. It would be great.
These weekends moving the boat were good times. One sunlit frosty weekend we ran right down the Shroppie from Hurleston to Autherley. The next, ‘Midnight Lady’ was forced by closures to take the ‘Northern Road’ through the BCN. I wasn’t part of the crew that weekend, to my eternal disappointment; hopefully old Perry might have a few photos he could post here.
My favourite weekend though, was me and Perry running her from Braunston down to Tring through good thick ice. The wooden boaties hated us as we steered through laterally moored communities of living boats. They worry that ice floes damage their delicate hulls. They shouted names at us. Sometimes the ice was so thick that Midnight Lady’s bow actually rode up onto the ice, and crashed downwards to shatter inch thick ice. We steered into Blisworth Tunnel as night fell; canal tunnels are long enough even when you can see the light at the other end; steering through at night gives an already alien environment a few extra degrees of chill.
We came into Stoke Bruerne in total darkness, and went to The Boat for a few. We got up first thing on the Sunday, and walked up to the top lock to look at the ice in the next pound. Trouble was, the next pound was empty. I’d read about what to do if you come across an empty pound; but I’d never actually put theory into practice. The proceedure is that you raise a ground paddle on the top gate; and open the bottom gates; and you wait for the pound to fill. We followed this to the letter, and it took at least an hour before the empty pound looked anything like deep enough to navigate. While we waited, an unconverted narrowboat, skippered by a grizzled old canal hand came and waited with us; we were pleased to take his advice, and when he felt the pound was deep enough, we went through the lock together, and then in convoy down the seriously depleted, but just navigable pound. As we came up to the next lock, it became obvious that the next pound was also empty, and we were going to have to take this pound of water down the locks with us. This means to descend the locks, you empty the pound that you’ve just filled into the empty pound below, and so on. It took us all morning to get down the flight of seven. Then we crackled on through thick Grand Union ice to Tring where we were picked up and delivered to the station by our old Lampeter flatmate Mrs. Ibrahimovic. Good times, which surely could only presage the good times to be had by all on Millennium Eve.
So, eventually, by slow progress and under several permutations of crew, Midnight Lady got to Limehouse. The party by the river was set to go. Just before Christmas, Lily. my ex-wife, called to remind me that it was my year to have Minnie for the New Year celebrations. Hooray and huzzah, was what I thought. What could be nicer? After all, at this time in my life I didn’t exactly have a house. I lived in an old Mum and Dad caravan parked up next to Sunnyside Lane Allotments in Lancaster. It was hard for Minnie to visit me, so I went to stay with her and Lily at their flat in Brighton, rather than having old Min hack up to Lancaster to sleep in a freezing caravan. Lily’s flat is small, and I always sleep on the sofa bed in the front room; not luxurious, but kind of Lily to let me stay, I always think. This particular New Year, then, was to be doubly special, because we could watch the Thameside 2K doings together, and then kip down on the boat instead of it always being my ex-wifes flat.
I arrived in Brighton on the 30th, and stayed that night in the flat. Minnie was very excited when I told her what we were doing. Lily was pleased, because she was going to a party at a pals house, and didn’t have to worry about getting home or not. I was pleased, because I was taking my daughter to a unique occasion, to participate in a floating party for which I had been crewing over the autumn. It had to be the best New Year ever; one I had earned.
At lunchtime on the 31st, I told Minnie that we should get going up to that London. She looked worried and upset. I asked what was the problem. She said, Daddy, I don’t want to go to this party. I want to just stay here with you. I think it would be nice to spend the Millennium with my daddy. Just the two of us. I told her that, although really touched that she wanted to spend this momentous night with her old Dad, I really thought we should go and meet Midnight Lady at Limehouse. Daddy, she told me, thank you. But I really really don’t want to go. I really really want to stay here with you. At home. Just you and me. So I yielded. The months of anticipation and (admittedly pleasurable) hard work were nothing as against the wishes of my little boopsie-woopsie. I bought some chocs and the Radio Times, and we made ourselves comfy in front of the Calor Gas Heater.
Lily left for her party at about 8. Minnie counted to ten, and then said, Dad, is it alright if I go round Seans. He’s having a party. And I sighed, because I had been done up like a kipper, and said, of course its OK Min. And she said Cheers Dad. See you in the morning. And off she went.
And I sat alone in my ex-wifes flat, and watched telly. At midnight Perry phoned to tell we what a swellegant elegant party hostess Midnight Lady had been.
I think most (all that ever did?) places still do local bonfires – I also try to get to East Hoathly – nearest to where I grew up, where the bonfire is combined with a kind of memorial service for Armistice day (a burning cross for each villager killed in the 2 world wars is carried through the village – easily misunderstood by those so imbued with US culture that the burning cross only means KKK!). But as you say everyone is in Lewes on the 5th. The ‘official’ Lewes bonfire website tends to list all the dates in all the places I recall (that’s the website that tells you not to bother going if you expect a tourist event!).
As you say, Smuggler outfit (and pint of Harvey’s) is the order of the day.
Incidentally, checked the list of 13 special pubs. Perry’s addition of Flamouth’s Seven Stars is a good call – I’ve actually been in that one. I think the additional Derbyshire one (“Chris Garrand’s Appendix … The Three Stags Head, Wardelow Myres, Derbyshire”) I think is in a place that should be correctly spelt Wardlow Mires – at least according to Ordnance Survey (on A623 north of Bakewell – in striking distance of me so I will have to check it out if I can recruit a driver).
Checking the locations of the 13, on my travels over the years I have been frustratingly close to most of them and never knew they existed – so thanks for publishing the list!
Hello again Dan. Lowdham was fun…
I know it’s shameful that I’d never been to Lewes on the 5th November before. But it used to be the case that all the towns around had their own Bonfires, so we all used to go to Newhaven Bonfire; though of course we could have gone to Lewes as well, since Lewes is pretty much the only place in Sussex to have a proper Bonfire night; because, after all, who would want to be anywhere else other than Lewes on Bonfire Night? I hope never to miss it again; and feel that until I dress up as a smuggler and march throygh Lewes by torchlight, my life has been wasted.
Ian – I can’t beleive that – you grew up in Newhaven and only went to Lewes for the first time last year! When I lived near Lewes (Berwick) I was attending the event from at least an age old enough to swig cider from a bottle! I try my best to go back most years when I can. I moved away to go to University – so it was not until I was 19 that I found out that other places don’t celebrate bonfire that way! I jollied along to the bonfire night in my big university city – thinking – big city – must do big fireworks etc – ha ha – how wrong I was to see the pathetic excuse for a display a city of 300,000 people put on!
Incidentally, I should (re) introduce myself as the chap who accosted you after your reading at the Lowdham (near Nottigham) book festival last summer – you may remember me telling you about my first job working at Brighton Station Travellers fare back in the mid / late 80s (or alternatively you may have voided the whole event from your memory).
Ashamed to say I’ve only recently started reading my copy of The Longest Crawl – but enjoying every page – superb stuff. I’m off to check the list of 13 now, but a colleague who goes to Hay regularly reckons the character has been lost at the 3 Tuns since the post fire re-build – so I presume the list is already down to 12 at least?
I’d look forward to reading a Lewes write up – although I think it possibly defies description (just as it defies photography). I tried to persuade a friend to join me for it one year – but after my description a look of horror filled her eyes and she said words to the effect of ‘I’m not going anywhere near one of those Wicker Man type places…’
It was one of our Tom Rolt moments, as it goes.
And thanks for the anti-climactic New Year story.
You’re quite right about people from Lewes doing the fireworks. I went last November, for the first time, as it goes. Bonkers. I’ll write my visit up.
Bit of the Tom Rolt’s about the ice bound (or ice breaking) eascapade by canal me thinks.
Mind you I was in Brighton millenium new year – wandering the streets in large crowds to get to the beach front in time for the fireworks – only for the front to be covered by a sea mist! the fireworks simply added to this smog so that the effect was one of standing in a thick mist that changed colour regularly – it was rubbish. In fact it was so rubbish that my partner sent an irate e-mail to Brighton Council soon after – I think they just thought she was a nutter – but it was badly organised and not much good – never mind the mist – they should have got some people in from Lewes who have demonstrated very well that they can organise a proper firework display!!
I searched in vain for a suitable picture of the venerable Midnight Lady; no luck. However I thought you might like to admire these photographs made FROM Midnight Lady in Autumn 2001. Somewhere in Staffordshire I think?