Not Virginia Woolf, but Peter Scott, Paul Gallico and a brave band of boaters.
Last autumn Malcolm felt moved to write about the East Bank “lighthouse” (it’s not: it’s a seamark) at the outfall of the River Nene. That post had a curious existence: for quite a while it featured strongly in Malcolm’s meagre quantum of “hits”. He concluded it was because he was doing a better job than the estate agents in selling the structure.
The rest of the story appears in the current issue of Waterways World:
Well done, the Hiltons.
Even so, Malcolm hopes they find space to acknowledge that this was not just Peter Scott’s abode (and that for a fairly short time). It was also an inspiration for Philip Rhayader’s home in Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose — though, to make Rhayader’s Dunkirk trip more credible, Gallico removed the Fenland Nene to the fictional “Aelder” and the Essex Marshes.
Once upon a none-too-distant time that book was an essential, a “Blyton breaker”, in the cause of developing young readers. It seems to have fallen foul of “political correctness” because of the references to Rhayader as a “cripple” and a “hunchback”.
Pity the objectors don’t swallow their instinctive prejudices and trust Gallico to do the job for them:
Frith saw the yellow light of Rhayader’s lantern down by his little wharf, and she found him there. His sailboat was rocking gently on a flooding tide and he was loading supplies into her—water and food and bottles of brandy, gear and a spare sail. When he turned to the sound of her coming, she saw that he was pale, but that his dark eyes, usually so kind and placid, were glowing with excitement, and he was breathing heavily from his exertions.
Sudden alarm seized Frith. The snow goose was forgotten. “Philip! Ye be goin’ away?”
Rhayader paused in his work to greet her, and there was something in his face, a glow and a look, that she had never seen there before.
“Frith! I am glad you came. Yes, I must go away. A little trip. I will come back.” His usually kindly voice was hoarse with what was suppressed inside him.
Frith asked: “Where must ye go?”
Words came tumbling from Rhayader now. He must go to Dunkirk. A hundred miles across the North Sea. A British army was trapped there on the sands, awaiting destruction at the hands of the advancing Germans. The port was in flames, the position hopeless. He had heard it in the village when he had gone for supplies. Men were putting out from Chelmbury in answer to the government’s call, every tug and fishing boat or power launch that could propel itself was heading across the sea to haul the men off the beaches to the transports and destroyers that could not reach the shallows, to rescue as many as possible from the Germans’ fire.
Frith listened and felt her heart dying within her. He was saying that he would cross the sea in his little boat. It could take six men at a time; in a pinch, seven. He could make many trips from the beaches to the transports.
The girl was young, primitive, inarticulate. She did not understand war, or what had happened in France, or the meaning of the trapped army, but the blood within her told her that here was danger.
“Philip! Must ‘ee go? You’ll not come back. Why must it be ‘ee?”
The fever seemed to have gone from Rhayader’s soul with the first rush of words, and he explained it to her in terms that she could understand.
He said: “Men are huddled on the beaches like hunted birds, Frith, like the wounded and hunted birds we used to find and bring to sanctuary. Over them fly the steel peregrines, hawks and gyrfalcons, and they have no shelter from these iron birds of prey. They are lost and storm-driven and harried, like the Princesse Perdue you found and brought to me out of the marshes many years ago, and we healed her. They need help, my dear, as our wild creatures have needed help, and that is why I must go. It is something that I can do. Yes, I can. For once —for once I can be a man and play my part.”
Frith stared at Rhayader. He had changed so. For the first time she saw that he was no longer ugly or mis-shapen or grotesque, but very beautiful. Things were turmoiling in her own soul, crying to be said, and she did not know how to say them.
“I’ll come with ‘ee, Philip.”
Rhayader shook his head. “Your place in the boat would cause a soldier to be left behind, and another and another. I must go alone.”
An intrepid voyage
The barges which decorate British waterways are not properly called “narrow boats for nothing. They have to fit the canals, and that means they are 6 feet 10 inches in width (to fit the seven foot wide dock gates). To go everywhere on the inland waterways, the tight limits of the Calder and Hebble Navigation means a length of 56 feet is the limit (though 70 footers are quite common). Then there’s the vertical dimensions: a three foot draft in probably pushing the limit, and the “air draft” (to get under fixed bridges) not usually more than six feet or so.
Those are not dimensions which suggest a seagoing craft, particularly when speeds of 4 mph are considered “speeding” on the inland waterways.
Which is why a trip passing the East Bank lighthouse, which also appears in that same issue of Waterways World represents somewhere between the height of folly and a daring mission:
It’s not necessarily more dangerous than the others, but it is complicated to navigate; it requires a weather eye and careful pilotage; and it does need a lot of planning and care. Above all, it’s by far the longest. It will take you a whole day or night, and you’ll be up to six miles from land at times, far from immediate assistance.
What’s more, it’s not a passage that narrowboats can normally make in a single crossing: you need to beach up halfway through to await the turn of the tide. And with a distance of from 32 to 46 miles, winding around treacherous sandbanks, it’s the most complicated of all tidal passages for canal boats.
There then follows Andrew Denny’s account of ten boats making the crossing. For the purposes of this post, Malcolm is concerned with the early part:
The path from Wisbech to the coast is straightforward, provided you don’t meet any large commercial vessels, and it has few landmarks. The only note of caution is the major swing bridge at Long Sutton, large enough to pass under without hindrance, and the port of Sutton Bridge …
A couple of miles further on is the last landmark of the Nene — the pair of Victorian ‘lighthouses’ at Guys Head. It’s said they were never built to be true lighthouses, but simply landmarks for sailors to find the entrance to the river through the myriadsandbars. Sir Peter Scott, the naturalist, owned and lived in the eastern one in his latter years.
Fair enough, except for two details:
- Scott’s residence at the East Bank was in his twenties and thirties — and he lived to be nearly eighty — so hardly his “latter years”
- The Nene outfall was dug by Jolliffe and Banks for John Rennie between 1826 and 1831. The two “lighthouses” were Rennie’s final flourish, and so hardly “Victorian”.