For the last year I have been walking across the marshes of North Kent writing about the lives of the people who have chosen to live in an alternative, simpler way. I began the last leg of my trip by catching a lift aboard the Edith May, a Thames sailing barge.
Estuary Life – Lower Halstow to Upnor
I climbed onto the Edith May, a Thames Sailing barge built in 1906, restored by Geoff Grandsen and his son Ed. In her early years she had worked these waters, collecting grain from Great Yarmouth and delivering it to London. Geoff had bought her as a wreck for £5000 and was restoring her, a project which was costing a lot more.
The crew prowled the decks, waiting for high water, Ed scaled the rope ladders, the kettle rang out from below, the chatter was all of laying up and bilge pumps, hard water and rigging and mostly about the barge match that the Edith May was to compete in the following day, a competition, Ed told me, “had stopped being competitive for a while but was now a serious business again.”
Finally we loosened the ropes holding us to the dock and motored out into the estuary, piped away by the oystercatchers. We passed the islands of Milford Hope, streaks of saltings disappearing beneath the rising tide. The land stretched away, all the miles I had walked. The path to Lower Halstow I had ran along in the rain shower, Darnet Island, where the rats danced at night, Bumbleness Creek, with its German U-boat. The place I had swum with Carl. It was the river I had read about with Mr Coles Finch, the river of Francis Drake and prison ships, of Man O Wars and the Dutch fleet coming to burn them. It was the river of dredgers and smacks, bawley boats and barges like this one.
Ed climbed into the rigging once more, to untie the ropes which bound the top sail, the sail flapped overhead. Craning my neck to see him at work it was like looking up into the roof of a cathedral. The rust red wing unfurled and flapped in the wind. Ed shimmied down again and began pulling on ropes. It wasn’t work for the feeble, he hauled on the rope, using his whole body strength, bending at the knees and swinging back up to snatch the rope and pull again. I felt exhausted just watched him and happily gobbled down chocolate biscuits which came with a welcome cup of tea.
As we passed Hoo Ness Island other barges could be seen, moored up.
“The Edme,” he said, pointing to a slightly slimmer, smaller boat, manned by boys with dreadlocks and a feisty dog that ran along the decks barking abuse at us. “It is the number one barge,” he said, eyeing it with envy.
The men on board were busy polishing the woodwork.
“Too late for that,” he shouted to the crew. “You’re either ready or not.”
The crew waved back in acknowledgement.
“No one beats it,” Ed said and bit down hard on his chocolate biscuit.