It’s only a scratch

I have been repairing the damage I did to the boat during our short trip last autumn. There is a surprising amount of it when you get up close and start to examine it but it’s not all bad news. It turns out that rusty scratches and scrapes are a bit like music and perfume in that they bring back detailed memories to savour and roll around the mind. Admittedly, most of the memories that I am talking about here were tainted by fear, embarrassment and a strong sense of my own incompetence as I bashed the boat into wharfs, trees, fences and the occasional other boat. (Don’t tell anybody about that last bit.) However, it’s the painful memories, the ones that recall what didn’t go so smoothly that stay with us for longer and they mellow with time.

The scars on the boat remind me that the bad times rarely prevail anyway and mostly we find ourselves looking back on them with a positive slant. Relief that they are over, laughter at our own stupidity, an understanding of how easy it is to get things out of proportion at the time. Bad memories will often trigger good ones too. When we were being blown against that horrible rusty old Armco barrier and the expensive paint was being stripped away with a horrible screeching sound, that was when the lovely hire boat couple came and rescued us. We enjoyed some really great times with Chris and Steph over the next forty eight hours, proof that losing a bit of paint isn’t necessarily the disaster it feels like at the time.

Patchwork

I was a bit apprehensive about tackling the paint repairs as it was probably forty years since I had last done anything like it. Attacking our beautiful girl with power tools and wire brushes seemed counter intuitive but like so many things, the anticipation was far worse than the reality. I tentatively applied the screaming sanding tool to the first rusty patch and almost immediately felt much better. What had felt like an aggressive invasive process very quickly turned into a healing one. It dawned on me that having done the damage in the fist place it would be cathartic to repair it and make good my early blunders. As I progressed along the side of the hull I relived each damaging impact. I heard the sickening scrunching sound of concrete on steel and regretted not having tackled the repairs more quickly.

Re-living the damage

The rust was like a screeching voice, berating me for my lack of urgency and my timidity in not getting to grips with the job sooner. “A stitch in time” became my irritating mantra running around my head as I worked. But as I applied the first coat of primer paint my whole mood changed to one of achievement. The memories of those awful moments as I closed my eyes, not wanting to see what damage I had done were replaced with ones of beautiful bright afternoons gliding along on sun dappled water. I found I could only remember the good times. The vibrant flash of blue as a kingfisher zipped along in front of us or the expectant heron reluctantly giving up his hungry vigil, rising on lazy gigantic wings to find a quieter fishing spot. The sense of satisfaction and achievement at the end of the hard day and the glorious first sip of a well earned pint in a canalside pub.

Oops! I remember that one.

I have absolutely no doubt that there will be plenty of incidents this summer that will result in more paint being lost. I am hoping that as we get more skilled at manoeuvring they will become less frequent but even so I won’t be quite so precious from now on. The scars I have covered up will remain visible due to my lack of professional skills but they will serve as reminders of good times not bad. I will try to see them as minor negative incidents that form tiny parts of a much greater positive experience. Of course we could avoid any further damage to the boat by simply not going anywhere. We could spend the summer painting and polishing her lovingly and then sitting back and admiring her. But that isn’t living is it?

The more I worked on repairing the boat and the more I realised how like life she is. Life is all about those knocks and scrapes. Without scars to remind us of life’s challenges and how we survived them what is the point. That’s why we will be off in a few weeks to time to scrape some more paint off the boat and make some more memories in the process. I might take a pot of paint and a brush with me this time though.

Why don’t we wear things out any more?

There is something about the way things change over a long period of time that is immensely satisfying; particularly if you, or a loved one, bring about those changes.

I was in my early twenties when my Nana died and I wasn’t very interested when the family were sorting through her belongings. There was one item though that I recall with great nostalgia and I wish it was in my ‘junk room’ right now so that I might stumble on it from time to time. It wasn’t a valuable thing, or precious in the way that a piece of jewellery or an antique is and as far as I know, nobody thought to hang on to it. Despite its apparent worthless status though, I deeply regret that I’ll never get the chance to hold it in my hand and run my fingers around the memories that it held. The object in question was a large metal spoon. A dessert spoon to be precise which in itself wasn’t that special but what made this particular spoon unique was the way in which it had been altered over time. Nana used to use it to beat cake mixture in her favourite china mixing bowl. She always used that same spoon and bowl during the creation of what must have been thousands of cakes and she had managed to wear away a fair proportion of the spoon so that it had become oddly asymmetric in shape. A totally unique piece of cutlery that belonged to, and represented my Nana as intensely as any inanimate object could possibly do. We used to joke about the fact that we had actually eaten part of the spoon in her cakes.

Nana’s son, my Dad, was a joiner and amongst the tools that I inherited from him is a very special chisel. It also holds in its form the story of his working life and an attitude to things that has been sadly lost. He probably used that chisel for over fifty years, painstakingly sharpening it at the end of the working day before returning it to its protective canvas sheath. Little by little with each successive sharpening the blade of the chisel has been ground away until only a short stub remains. Unlike the steel that has been lost on the grinding wheel and the sharpening stone, the memories of his craftsmanship are firmly embedded in what remains of the blade. It is possible of course that he broke it at some point and I am getting over nostalgic about these things but even if he did break it, the fact that he re-ground and re-sharpened it so that it could be used again tells the same tale.

I think there is something very special about objects like the chisel and the spoon. They speak of a time when the things we owned held much more value and nothing was discarded unless it was well and truly worn out or broken beyond repair. It’s hard to pin point just when things changed; when it became normal to buy a new replacement for something long before it has reached the end of its useful life. My Dad taught me how to sharpen a saw. It’s a time-consuming and tedious process so I do understand why working builders might not want to do it but the first cut after the sharpening is satisfying like no other. Contractor’s saws are now sold in multi-packs because it is assumed that they will be used until blunt and then thrown in the skip to join everything else in the landfill site. Each saw has less value than the time it would take to re-sharpen it. It’s not just the fact that the things we buy now are not designed to last as long, or that their lovely wooden handles have been replaced with plastic ones. What we have lost is the unique relationship that can be fostered between a person and an object if they spend enough time in each other’s company. There is something really beautiful in the way in which the wooden handle of a spade changes to match the hand of the gardener that digs with it season after season. The patina and sheen of the wood reflects the callouses that it, in turn, created. Or the subtle change in the shape of a knife’s blade that has been sharpened a thousand times before carving the Sunday joint. The changing shape of the handle or the blade reflects the changing lives of those that use them in a way that words or photos could never do. They capture time. When I was working on the canals last year I pointed out to many people the deep grooves on the cornerstones of bridges that have been worn by the ropes as the horses pulled the barges through. Running your finger through those grooves is about as close as you can get to time travel.

Look out for those grooves

Look out for those grooves

It’s a shame that we don’t seem to wear things out anymore; we just get bored with them now and throw them away. It’s easy to justify it on the grounds that the thing didn’t cost much in the first place and a new one is so cheap it’s not worth the effort of maintaining or repairing it. It’s a shame because soon there won’t be any worn down handles to run our hands over while we contemplate the life of a previous owner no longer with us. So much less of what we use will get passed on. There will be less to make the bridge from one generation to another, fewer memories preserved forever in shapes. It’s ironic that you can’t buy these things; you have to make them from the things you buy and it takes years, maybe even a whole lifetime. I sometimes wonder how old my Nana would have had to get to wear away the rest of the spoon.

How to win the lottery without buying a ticket

So the genuine winner of the thirty three million pound lottery prize has finally been found and now there are a few dozen very nervous false claimants wondering if they are going to prison rather than on a Caribbean cruise. These Lottery stories seem to capture the imagination of the public every time they come around and spark off another succession of conversations that start with, “what would you do with x million pounds?” I don’t feel qualified to contribute to the debate because I have never bought a lottery ticket and don’t ever intend to. Why would I put myself through all that false hope and then disappointment when I already feel rich? Gambling is one way of getting rich but the odds are long and even those that win don’t always get what they want. Search the internet for “Lottery winner stories” and you will find numerous sad accounts of couples and individuals who found that untold wealth is no guarantee of happiness and many who ended up losing everything they won. There are even a few tragic cases that led to suicide.

Of course it does work for some people but if you read the stories of those that did cope with a big win they all talk with great satisfaction about giving money away, helping others and, in many cases, being able to do voluntary work and to support charities. In other words it is the giving rather than the gaining that has actually brought them happiness.

Personally, rather than hope in vain for a huge bank balance I choose to think about what defines being rich.

All this navel gazing has come about because of a conversation yesterday that ranged from pensions and retirement via the recent unclaimed lottery win story to some of our experiences on our ride around the coast of Britain. We met many rich people on our travels but not all of them had money. So what is wealth and how do we achieve it?

I accept that for some people money will do the trick but I really don’t think it’s the only option. When we went on our trip we had managed to set aside ten thousand pounds and in the end we spent eight thousand of it during the five months on the road. For eight thousand pounds we could have bought four thousand lottery tickets, a small basic car or a three week luxury cruise. We chose to spend it on campsite fees, simple food, a beer or two and enough memories to last us a lifetime. Here are just some of the things that we got for our money:

Priceless

Priceless

1000961

memories

150 completely unique days each of which had it’s own ups and downs in every sense.

Countless scenes that are etched into our minds for future viewing.

Acts of kindness that ranged from meals and accommodation to just an encouraging word on a gloomy day.

The satisfaction of getting somewhere by our own effort and determination.

The endless discovery of boundaries that could be stretched and broken only to discover new ones waiting for us.

The investment of suffering that adds value to pleasure and comfort.

2000 photos to re-kindle memories

80,000 written words that I can re-read when my memory struggles with the details.

A bunch of new friends that continue to enhance our lives from a distance.

A large bucket of anecdotes that I can torture people with when I am old and senile.

Never having to wonder what it would be like to ‘take the plunge” because we’ve done it and it turns out to be great. (Thanks for the reminder Gareth)

 

So my chances of winning the lottery may be non-existent but that doesn’t mean I will never be rich; far from it.

 

What would you do differently?

There is a huge difference between setting out to cycle around the coast of Britain and setting out to see the coast of Britain. Hence the question; “What would you do differently?”

Gill and I were talking during our morning walk yesterday and it turns out we have been independently going back over the photos of our trip around Britain and coming to the same realisation. We feel as if we rushed the whole thing. That we didn’t take enough time to stop and stare and really absorb the experience. That probably sounds a bit shocking when you consider that we spent longer than most making our way around the coast. We averaged less than forty miles a day. That’s pretty slow by a lot of touring standards. We thought we had allowed ourselves plenty of time to take it all in. To take days off and to ensure that we really got the most out of this once in a life time experience. In reality we find that whole days went by with little or no lasting memories to show for them. (I hear one or two people saying, “I told you so”.)

I also think that we made a big mistake in announcing that we were going to cycle around Britain, albeit with the added word, ‘probably’. I thought that strap line was terribly witty and really summed up our care-free, relaxed attitude to the whole trip. Of course, I was kidding myself wasn’t I? Just as I said in the blog about giving up drink for January, making that announcement is great if you want pressure to achieve something difficult. Fatal if you don’t. So, lesson number two; don’t pick any journey that is of a circular nature if you don’t want commitment. Any circular trip has a very obvious beginning and end and most people would notice if you did half a circle and then made a bee-line for home. In other words, a circular journey has ‘failure’ written all over it if you don’t complete the circle. We really, genuinely believed that we were above all that stuff and that we could make up our own rules. That it really didn’t matter if we decided to miss out bits of Scotland or save Wales for another time. In reality though, the pressure to ‘do the whole coast’ was huge. So, lesson number two; keep things open ended, literally.

I’ll give you a specific example of what I think I did wrong. I say I, rather than we, because I actually do think that I was much more to blame for this than Gill. We had a glorious ride one morning around Loch Eriboll. The whole day is covered in this post: Skerry Wild Camp.

Brooding Loch Eriboll

Brooding Loch Eriboll

The scenery was spectacular and even the occasional shower of drizzle couldn’t dampen our mood. As you complete the circuit of the loch there is a pretty steep climb and then a spectacular ride down through wild country before an even tougher climb at the head of Loch Hope.

Looking back down on Loch Eriboll

Looking back down on Loch Eriboll

As I tackled this next climb, and it really was a brute, I glanced over my right shoulder and caught a glimpse of the loch lit by a shaft of sunshine amidst a brooding dark background of towering hills and black skies. It was a breath taking scene but I had no breath to give. Preoccupied as I was with completing the climb I looked for only a fraction of a second and I recall thinking as I pushed on how it would have made a fabulous photograph. Did I stop? Did I take the opportunity to capture something really special whilst also having a quick breather? No I didn’t. I let the climb consume me completely and only when I reached the top and the loch was completely out of sight did I stop to catch the breath that I kept from the scene. I will always regret that moment because already the sharpness of it is fading. If only I had stopped and really taken it in. Etched it more permanently on my mind like an indelible tattoo to savour for ever more. I let the challenge of a physical achievement outweigh the beauty of a moment that might have fed my soul forever. It’s easily done and to some extent that’s what we did with the whole journey. As I said, I think I was more to blame for this than Gill.

We have over two thousand photos from the trip but as I have been going through them adding captions and locations I am bitterly disappointed to find that I can’t place many of them. It takes a huge effort of recall, aided by maps, notes and Google Street Map to pin down the exact location and bring to mind how I felt at the time. Sometimes, sadly, I just can’t remember.

We have had the first tentative conversations this week about future tours. We don’t have any plans for where to go. When, or for how long even. All we know right now is that in future we will get on our bikes with the sole intention of really seeing somewhere. Seeing it with our eyes, our ears and our hearts and our minds. Seeing it slowly and intensely, however long that takes. We might put a duration on it. A month, two months or whatever but we won’t put a distance on it and it definitely won’t be circular.

 

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