An Unpleasant Diversion.
When we first arrived in the docks with the Glevum, the previous autumn, we had got chatting with a recently retired couple who had just sold their newsagents’ shop. Their names were Sid and Margaret. They had lived in the flat above the business, but had decided to retire and live a less stressful life after Margaret had suffered a heart attack. They had, for some years, had a pleasure cruiser, the Lady Helen, in the docks and were now living on that, with all their belongings in storage.
Sid was very taken with the Glevum, and especially impressed with the space available on a barge of that size. After a month or two, they were talking of buying a barge and converting it into a bed and breakfast establishment with a restaurant, hardly a stress-free retirement!
We did our best to point out all the drawbacks and emphasised just how much work would be involved. It seemed that the more we tried to dissuade them from the idea, the more enthusiastic Sid became. A month or two later, they arrived in the docks aboard the Wilclair, the motor-barge I had looked at in Bude, which they had just bought from Peter Herbert. Sid’s plans were to build upwards and have two decks. In the hold would be the sleeping cabins whilst on the upper deck would be a restaurant and kitchen and, atop of all that, would be an open sundeck with chairs and tables where, in good weather, afternoon tea could be served. The whole design would be based on a Mississippi steamboat.
Their progress was far more rapid than ours as they had something which we lacked – ample capital. Sadly, to me at least, the result of their efforts was hideous. The Wilclair, as a coasting barge, had been a beautifully proportioned vessel. The Wilclair, after conversion to what a layman thought a Mississippi paddle boat should look like, was a visual nightmare.
But they were so enthusiastic.
One day in August, I was in our wheelhouse making some coffee. My gaze ran down the quayside and along the moored boats until I got to the Wilclair. I was horrified to see thick black smoke belching out of the hold. I shouted to Kate and we grabbed buckets and ran down the quayside to see if we could help. Sid was standing on the quay looking stricken. He explained that he’d been using the oxy-acetylene torch to cut some pieces out of the hatches above the hold and a spark must have set fire to their belongings. They had moved everything into the hold to save money on storage. He ran off to find the nearest phone and ring the fire brigade.
Our buckets had ropes tied to them, so I ran around to the far side of the barge where I could haul water up from the dock to throw onto the fire. Sid’s wife Margaret was round there too. In the billowing smoke, she was trying to untie the mooring ropes of their cruiser which was tied up alongside. She shouted to me that there were gas bottles down in the fire! I got her to tell me roughly where they were and concentrated my efforts in that general area.
After a while, I could see flames through the smoke, but very little else. Then I heard the welcome sound of the sirens of the approaching fire engines. Fearing that they’d lose the Lady Helen as well, I stopped throwing water in and told Margaret who, in the smoke, was still struggling to untie the mooring ropes, to get aboard, I quickly cast her off and gave the Lady Helen a hefty shove. Then I resumed hurling buckets of water into the smoke as fast as I could haul hem up. Sid had explained to the Fire Officer about the gas bottles in the fire and I then heard his command,
“IF THERE IS ANYONE ON THE BOAT, GET OFF – NOW!”
They also started evacuating the whole area. I called through the smoke to Margaret to start the Lady Helen’s engines and moor her alongside the Glevum and, just above the crackling of the flames, heard her call back that she didn’t know how to! There was only one option. I left my buckets on deck and took a flying leap through the smoke. Luckily, the Lady Helen hadn’t drifted too far out and I managed to scramble aboard rather than land in the water. I got one engine running – the other wouldn’t start, but one was enough to bring her under control and I motored the quarter of a mile or so up the dock and tied up alongside the Glevum. Having been excluded from the area of the Wilclair, Kate and Sid were already there.
By now, the fire crews were getting things under control and the smoke was beginning to subside. We tried to comfort Sid and Margaret as best we could, at least there hadn’t been an explosion, things could have been worse – but we had to admit, not much worse. Amongst their possessions that had been destroyed were all of Margaret’s family heirlooms and photographs. Her forebears had had distinguished careers in India and, as well as the photographs, there had been letters, citations and medals from Maharajas. they were all gone.
I must have looked a pretty sight, I was black with smoke and soot and, as I had been wearing thick socks with sandals, I found that the toes had completely burned off the socks!
This incident made Kate and me aware that not all boat owners were the ‘brotherhood of water gypsies’ as they liked to portray themselves. Rather than helping, the other boat owners had simple moved their boats out of harm’s way, and then watched the action from a safe distance. The only other people who had actually tried to help were passers-by!
The following day, we walked down to the Wilclair and looked at the smoke-blackened remains. The fire crews had done a brilliant job in averting a much worse disaster, but the charred remains of burnt carpets, bedding and wood, slopping about in a foot or so of water from the fire hoses, was as depressing a sight as there could be. The smell was even worse.
In spite of everything, Sid and Margaret were determined not to be beaten and announced that they would carry on. As Kate and I just aren’t the sort of people that can turn our backs on friends in need, we put the Glevum project on hold and pitched in with them. In about a fortnight we had filled several skips with charred, sodden rubbish and scrubbed the soot-blackened inside. They were ready to start again. We were even further behind!
Writing this, after a gap of thirty years, has set me thinking about this event and, in retrospect, I find myself having to revise my opinions, both of the people who simply moved their boats to safety and of my own actions.
Had the Glevum been closer, and in physical danger, I realise that I would have probably acted in the same way. Similarly, my actions that day were, in reality, utterly stupid. I actually achieved very little and, had the fire brigade not arrived when they did, our story could so easily have ended there and then!
To be continued.
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