Characters of the Cut – Helen Hutt

This is the full text of an article written by Noah Price and reproduced here at his request following a talk given by Helen Hutt at the WBLA meeting held on the 11th February 2015. An edited version is being published in Towpath Talk.

Helen Hutt talks to Noah Price about the pleasures and pitfalls of being a single-handed boater…

Twelve years ago Helen found herself “at a crossroads” in her life; she was living in a flat in Leamington Spa, which she regarded as being only a temporary setup until she had a clearer idea of where she wanted to live. But because she had not got enough money to buy a property outright and felt that, at the age of 57, she was too old to take on a mortgage, her options were limited.

Her flat overlooked the Grand Union Canal and in her spare time, when she was not working as a self-employed public relations marketing consultant, she would cycle and take long walks along the nearby stretch of the towpath. One day, while she was leisurely observing the boaters, she thought to herself, “the people on these boats seem a friendly bunch – I wonder what it’s like living aboard?”

When this thought occurred to her, she had not so much put a foot onboard a narrowboat, so to be certain that this was something that she really wanted to invest in and not just a fanciful whim, she set out to try to learn everything she possibly could about what it takes to live on a narrowboat.

A whole new lifestyle

She visited a hiring boatyard in Warwick where she was shown around some of the boats by the owner and also given a mental checklist of all the things that she needed to take into consideration before buying a boat. Helen left the boatyard feeling quietly confident that she was on the cusp of finding what she had been yearning for – an affordable and satisfying lifestyle choice.

For the next few months, Helen “did a bit more research and looked at some more boats” and then she was invited to tag along for a day trip on a narrowboat, which belonged to the parents of one of her friends. It was this experience, which fully convinced her that living on a narrowboat “wasn’t just going to be a place to live but the gateway to a whole new lifestyle,” which was just what she needed.

Some people who knew her thought that she was taking a bit of a gamble in deciding to move out of her flat and adapting to a substantially different way of life – Helen is sure that even her adult children thought she had gone “barmy” – but, nevertheless, she rose above the voices of doubt and in December 2005, three months after the day trip, she bought a 57ft narrowboat called Pipistrelle.

Before Helen was prepared to move onboard, she took Pipistrelle to “have some work done on her” at a boatyard in Lower Heyford. Pipistrelle had two previous owners and had been used as a holiday boat rather than a permanent live-aboard. Therefore the boat did not accommodate Helen’s particular requirements.

Helen requested the boatyard to convert the single berth cabin into an office and have the back cabin renovated into what she euphemistically calls “the laundry room”. She had a washer-dryer installed, with an ironing board table on the top of it, along with an alternator and Travelpower inverter to run it.

While Pipistrelle was being worked on, Helen set her mind on rectifying her lack of boating experience and went on a three-day narrowboat-handling course. She said that she learnt about “everything” while she was on this course – “what to do before setting off, how to steer, reverse, operate locks, moor up and how to tie essential knots,” – but she did admit that she thought she received a bit more help from the instructor than the other budding boaters did, because he knew that she was going to be a single-handed boater. A few months later, Helen attended a course on engine maintenance, so she could do her own servicing on Pipistrelle.

Then finally in February 2006, she moved out of her flat and was officially “living aboard.”

A genuine continuous cruiser

Balancing her work-life with the responsibilities of owning a narrowboat turned out to be “doable”, says Helen, mainly because she was self-employed, so it did not matter too much where she was located as long as she was in reasonable driving or train travelling distance from Oxford, where her main client was situated.

Helen would typically cruise for a few hours from A to B and then ride her bike back to point A – where her car would be – and then she would put her bike on the car and drive back to the boat, ready for a couple of days of client visits. This routine, which to some might seem like an extensive commute to her clients, was the start of Helen’s travelling. She is proud to say that since then she has always been “a genuine continuous cruiser.”

Being such a continuous cruiser meant that Helen had to negotiate a postal system which, needless to say, would have been a lot simpler if she was to just live in one spot. Luckily a close friend in Leamington Spa was willing to manage her post for her and has done so ever since. Usually Helen will get her friend to send the post to the nearest post office to wherever she is moored up at the time or if someone is visiting Helen they will give the post to her or, if she can, she will pick the post up directly from her friend’s house.

Helen cruising along the Pontcysyllte aqueduct

When Helen retired in 2010, from 25 years of being a PR marketing consultant, she sold her car and cruised round all of the accessible southern waterways except the Medway. Her voyages included the whole of the Thames upstream of Limehouse, Lea Navigation, the River Wey, the Kennet and Avon Canal, up through Bristol to Sharpness via Portishead, up the Severn to Stourport, along with all the Midlands canals and the Rivers Avon and Soar. In 2013 she travelled up the Shropshire Union and along the Llangollen where she went across the, must-do-for-every-intrepid-boater, the Pontycysyllte aqueduct.

The next area to tick off was the Fens.

The magic on the Fens

Last year in April she set off on a tour which started from Warwick on the Grand Union and went round in a loop from Gayton Junction, through the Northampton flight, down the River Nene, across the Middle Level and then back up to the Great River Ouse. This journey went through four counties: Northamptonshire, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire.

She was originally planning on travelling for a month so, to begin with, she only bought a month’s EA license from Gayton Junction. But she ended up having to keep on renewing the license because she had become so swept up by her wanderlust that she thought “Ah, blow it – I’ll just take my time and really enjoy myself!”

The journey there and back covers around 440 miles and 162 locks but Helen “loved the area so much” that she kept on revisiting places. “I have no idea how many miles I covered exactly but I know it was quite a lot.” The tour lasted for four and a half months.

“It was hard work but great fun. I didn’t really want to come back to the ‘real world’, it was so quiet and lovely.”

One thing that impressed her, while she was travelling, was the Fenland sky. She had heard many people romanticise about the simple yet profound pleasure of taking the time to look up into the sky, how its sheer vastness can quash all of your problems and worries away into a calm state of unimportance, and she knew how the sky has always been a favourite subject for poets, writers and novelists; the notable essayist and poet Joseph Addison being one of them who described it as, ‘the spacious firmament on high.’ But, previous to this journey, Helen felt that she hadn’t really appreciated the sky before; if she had been asked about it, she would have had nothing much more to say apart from, “Yes, the sky is big – so what?”

But while she was cruising through the Fens she found herself being “enchanted” by it, particularly when she was going through some parts where the landscape was flat and low-lying for as far as the eye could see and where there were no nearby trees or tall buildings to break up the sweeping, panoramic view of the “immense” blue sky that surrounded her.

One of the many places she was enchanted by was Fotheringhay, a conservation village in the county of Northamptonshire, which has retained much of its natural beauty and historical legacy. She said, “If you ever get the chance, you must moor up there because it is absolutely lovely.”

Fotheringhay was once home to a large and legendary motte-and-bailey castle, the mound of which Helen was fascinated by.

“I knew that Mary Queen of Scots was executed at the castle but one thing I didn’t know, until I went on this trip, was that King Richard III was born in the castle. It occurred to me that all of today’s historians could have avoided the recent argument about where the bones of Richard III should be returned to, after they were found underneath a car park in Leicester, if the bones were just brought back to Fotheringhay where he was born. Surely that would have been a logical place to put them?”

Helen told me about the geography and the history of the places she visited, with such an impressive command of knowledge that I thought she must have had a university degree in history. She modestly explained, “I just loved finding out about the history of the places. I don’t see much point in travelling unless you are going to learn something.”

She also told me that if you are a keen bird watcher or a wildlife enthusiast, the route she took was “the best place to be” for seeing the natural world.

“I saw a lot of lapwings – a bird that you don’t normally see very much these days. I saw the three different types of terns which you can find in the British Isles and for the first time I saw a little egret. And something I heard a lot of, but never saw, were cuckoos for three weeks, there was seldom a day when I didn’t hear a cuckoo – it’s a fantastic sound they make, it sort of lifts your heart up to hear it.”

Helen moored up at a place called Wicken Fen, a wetland situated near the village of Wicken in Cambridgeshire, which was the first nature reserve to be cared for by the National Trust in 1899. “In order to get to it you have to take a mile-long chug up a very narrow and weedy channel but my goodness was it worth it!”

While she was there she saw a group of wild Konik ponies. “Something I certainly didn’t expect to see, they were absolutely beautiful. They had been introduced to keep the vegetation down in certain areas of the nature reserve.”

She was told by several boaters along the River Ouse that if she kept her eyes peeled she was bound to see an otter. “I would have loved to have seen one but sadly I never did.”

To her frustration the closest she got to seeing an otter, she missed by mere minutes. She was moored up at the head of the Little Ouse for two nights and when she was there she would occasionally glance an eye over every ripple and bubble on the surface of the river hoping that she would see the head of an otter pop its head out from underneath the water. She moved on to another spot where a week later she, by chance, met the boater who had previously been moored up behind her at the head of the Little Ouse. He said to her, “Oh if only you had stayed for a few more minutes! Just after you went I was sitting drinking a cup of coffee and suddenly I heard this ‘splash splash’ and there was an otter playing about in the water.”

Helen, determined to see an otter, made her way back to the same place a few weeks later but when she got there she found the river crowded full of people swimming and diving into the water. “It was like a lido. So obviously there were no otters around.”

Another sort of nature reserve she saw was, surprisingly, on the roof of a narrowboat. “This was no accident,” she said. The man who owned the boat “actually planted a wild flower meadow all along the roof of his boat.” Apparently he “stuck his head out of the window” and told her all about his “roof garden” as she was cruising by.

Something else she saw which amused her was a sign on the bank which said ‘Danger beware of Crocs.’ On one level this is amusing – it is a classic example of a juxtaposition gag – there is the unexpected contrast between the picturesque river and the impossible threat of man-eating crocodiles in England, which creates irony. But whoever made the sign took the joke to another level with a play on words by anchoring some plastic crocs, of the shoe variety, to float around the sign. “Somebody has a sense of humour!” Helen said, while she laughed over the memory of seeing the sign.

The one or two mishaps

Not everything was plain sailing though. She did get into a few difficult situations, which she said, “Would have been far easier to get out of if I had had somebody with me.”

Before she went on this tour she had been told about a lack of moorings, particularly on the River Nene. She said that because she had set off early in the year, she didn’t have too much of a problem finding mooring spaces. But there were times when she had been travelling for so long that she wished she could have stopped, but couldn’t, due to not finding a place to moor up. When she arrived in Bedford, after a long morning of cruising, she was warned by a local boater that the area could be quite an unsafe place to moor up at overnight. Helen couldn’t believe it. She thought that the spot she chose was “absolutely beautiful.” But, later on that afternoon, she saw a group of “noisy” men sitting on the Quay, drinking back cans of lager. Their behaviour unnerved her to a point that she thought she would take heed of what the boater said and she swiftly moved on to find a different mooring spot out of town.

On another occasion, she asked several boaters if she could moor alongside them but, despite the fact there were signs saying ‘please be prepared to double moor’, she was met with an agitated reply: “Oh no, we’ve got dogs!” one couple said and another couple were even more blunt in stating that they wanted to solely occupy what they believed to be their territory and said, “Ah no, sorry, we’re on holiday! We don’t want anyone mooring up beside us!”

Helen felt that these sorts of unnecessarily hostile reactions were not in accordance with “the spirit of good boatmanship” but nonetheless she shrugged them off and carried on.

The “biggest problem” she encountered was when she was told by a boater that a tree had fallen down across the river a few miles ahead. The boater said that he managed to get past the tree by cutting some of the branches away. Helen thought that if he could get past it then she could. She tried but because Pipistrelle has a deep drafted hull, the keel got wedged on the riverbed just as the boat was moving past the tree. Helen had to spend an hour tiresomely heaving, shuffling and poling her way out of this predicament. Then finally she managed to move the boat free and, shortly afterwards, she was “glad to be able to moor up.”

The Middle Level she explained, “is partly river and partly drains and there are some very wiggly bits here and there.”

It was here that she came across “a particularly sharp bend at a place called Briggate.” This infamous bend took her by surprise and caused her to helplessly swerve into the trees and get “completely and utterly stuck” on the bank.

“I made a total mess of it. Fortunately there was nobody around to watch me!”

She once again managed to get the boat free, this time taking with her a tangled mass of foliage and branches, some of which she found later on embedded in her hair.

There were a couple of incidents where she was “stuck” for almost an entire week with nothing much more to do but moor up and go exploring, because of rising water levels near Hermitage Lock and then on her return journey, for the same reason, she got stuck on the Nene at Thrapston.

All stations north

Helen takes these “mishaps” in her stride, “they’re just part of being on the water. I love exploring on my boat and I don’t miss living in a house. I did miss the garden at first but then realised I was actually living in a beautiful, constantly changing, natural garden.”

She is currently moored up in Manchester and she will soon be heading off to Liverpool, up the Lancaster Canal, and on to Rochdale and to many more places. “I’m going to travel as far I can. There are loads of places I want to ‘tick off’. I’ve gone round the south, now it’s all stations north!”

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