11-13 July 2008
There is no happier way to spend your 29th birthday than with good friends, cruising gently in a canal boat in the bucolic English countryside.
We picked up our traditional narrowboat from Lee Valley Boat Centre and took stock of the good ship May's miniature living quarters - 8 bunks, 2 dining tables converting into beds, 2 toilets and showers, a galley kitchen and strictly single file at all times if you wanted to move about.
Ahoy me maties! We left Captain Brett (the only one with any sailing experience) with the task of driving 70 feet (!) and 12 tonnes of steel (!) as the rest of us enjoyed the River Lee scenery from the bow and stern of the boat. However, our relaxation was short-lived as we shortly approached our first lock - a complete farce. No one knew what to do, everyone was shouting instructions and the lock gates were stupidly heavy. When we finally did pass through the lock, a sightseeing pensioners' cruise gave us a round of applause.
The boys quickly discovered their long-lost strong, masculine sides and became quite proficient at the physical labour of opening and closing locks ("Push boys! You look really manly and attractive" said Jenny). Until it started raining, and then it was decided that the next lock would be the 'girls' lock'. Hmpf.
After 5 hours, we moored Ware and headed off to Jacoby's for dinner - housed in the second oldest building in Ware and serving possibly the worst-ever apple crumble in the world. The evening was capped off by delightful parlour games of Mafia and Twenty Questions as the pub across the river rocked with revellers (tactical mooring error).
I woke up to the gentle paddle of swans and then the boys started up the boat while the 'girlies' prepared a delightful breakfast of crumpets and tea/coffee/juice (how quickly we settled into our gender roles). On reaching the beautiful town of Hertford, Brett again did a magnificient job of manouvering the boat in a tight turning circle and then we putted our way south, stopping at the Jolly Fisherman at Stansted Lock for a lovely pub lunch and swinging by Lee Valley Boat Centre to pick up Cara to the Love Boat theme tune.
Mooring for the night at Waltham Abbey, we went hunting the ghost-town high street for dinner - ending up at Ayasophia, a Turkish restaurant which we despatched Yalin to approve first. The £15 banquet was delicious - dips, Turkish bread, cold mezzes, meat, meat and meat. The highlight of the evening had to be Samantha, the authentic Essex belly-dancer, swinging her bottle blonde hair and forcing guys to dance with her swirling paunch.
I never thought the first meal of my 29th birthday would be at McDonalds. But wow, those rubbery pancakes were just as I remembered them as a kid - except now they have frightening nutritional information on the packaging. After a quick visit to the ancient Waltham Abbey, home of King Harold's tomb, we cruised back up the River Lee in the sunshine.
Rarely have I felt more relaxed. Our boat could only move at a maximum of 4 miles an hour, which meant we could read, chat, drink beer or sleepily watch the beautiful scenery from the roof - green fields filled with dozing cows under a bright blue sky, sweet little market towns and canalside pubs. The city felt like a world away.
It was quite a novelty to pull up for lunch in a boat, and for my second birthday meal I enjoyed a Luxury Fisherman's Pie and Pimms with lemonade at the Fish and Eels pub.
Reaching dry land was an interesting experience after 2 days on a boat. I felt the world rocking under my feet for days afterwards - in fact, looking at the computer screen made me feel seasick! Bizarre.
And there's already plans afoot for my 29 + 1 birthday - a bigger boat, in a hotter country: sailing in the Mediterranean!
- Lee Valley Boat Centre: Old Nazeing Rd. Broxbourne, Herts. EN10 6LX T: 01992 462085
- Jacoby's: Churchgate House, 15 West Street, Ware, SG12 9EE
- Jolly Fisherman: 8 Station Road, Stanstead St Margarets, Ware, Hertfordshire, SG12 8DH
- Ayasophia Restaurant: 24a, Sun St, Waltham Abbey, Essex EN9 1EE T: 01992 714305
- Fish and Eels: Dobbs Weir Road, Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire, EN11 0AY T: 01992 466073