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(photo credit: Gloria Deutsch)
As July 2006 approached, and with it the realization that my husband and I had been, as Basil Fawlty so beautifully put it, manacled together for forty years, we began to look for a suitable way to celebrate that momentous day in 1966 which saw the founding of our personal dynasty.
It would have been nice to take the four children, two sons-in-law and six grandchildren to Disneyworld, but fortunately a cheaper and more practical option presented itself.
Our good friends Joanna and Euan Houstoun offered us and our two sons their narrow boat Trincomalee 11 for a voyage of adventure through Britain's inland waterways - in this case the River Wey starting at the pretty village of Shalford in Surrey. Another boat, the Grenadier, was hired from the nearby Farncombe Boat House to accommodate the rest of the family. The Grenadier was chosen, partly because it sleeps two families of five and partly because Euan's regiment, the Grenadier Guards, are this year celebrating their 350th anniversary and it seemed appropriate.
Euan, who served as military attach at the British Embassy in Tel Aviv from 1997 to 2000, was a colonel in the Grenadier Guards and a few weeks before had visited Buckingham Palace with his regiment. During the trip he regaled us with anecdotes of chatting up the Queen and Prince Philip, but seemed unphased at having to deal with us lesser mortals.
For the first night of our adventure, the whole family took over the Parrot Inn in Shalford, the licensee of which is David Cohen, originally from Cairo, and his wife Trisha. Joanna invited all of us for supper and the children had a great time playing croquet on the lawn.
After the Cohen breakfast of cereals, boiled eggs and lashings of smoked salmon, we set off for Farncombe Boathouse to board Trincomalee and Grenadier. Euan showed us around the boat which they comissioned after returning from Israel. Trincomalee 1 was a famous schooner, the oldest ship still afloat now kept in Hartlepool and captained by Euan's ancestor, Captain Wallace Charles Houstoun, in the Pacific between 1852-1857.
Euan would be the first to admit that he speaks English, not so much with a plum in his mouth as a massive nectarine. So that his explanation of how to use the chemical toilet, with different procedures for "number one" and "number two" delivered in this uber-posh accent, was a surreal experience I will always treasure.
JOANNA, WHO during their sojourn in Israel was an active member of the International Women's Club, organizing tours around the country, took it on herself to provide the food for Trincomalee, ensuring that we would have a totally worry-free holiday. Well-versed in the peculiarities of kashrut, she kept us provided with excellent vegetarian fodder. The Grenadier crew had to self-cater and a shopping expedition to Sainsbury's right at the start was, as expected, organized with military precision for the girls, while the sons-in-law were given instructions on how to work the boat.
The narrow boats which sail up and down the rivers and canals of Britain are just what they say they are - long and narrow, no more than six-and-a-half feet across. Nevertheless they contain all mod.cons. - bedrooms, some with bunk beds, the aforementioned toilet, a kitchen and dining area, television and stereo - and the most vital part of any river holiday, a well-stocked bar.
One of the reasons they are so narrow is that they have to be able to enter the locks, preferably two at a time, to speed the process of traversing the river. The locks become a way of life on river holidays and distances are measured in locks, not miles. (You know how you ask an Israeli kid how old they are and they answer "Kita Bet" [second grade]; well, in England on the rivers and canals, if you ask how far to the next pub you will be told, not how many miles, but how many locks you have to pass to reach it.)
The 14 locks on the length of river were traversed in four days. They are centers for social activity, places to commune with the locals and other travelers, and of course an ingenious way of coping with the different depths of the river so you don't find yourself plunging into deep rapids. They have been around for a few centuries and inspired painters like Constable, whose exhibition of landscapes we later saw at the Tate Britain, to put their special convivial quality on canvas.
In spite of the heat wave Britain had enjoyed in the weeks before we arrived, the countryside around was as green and lush as ever and there were enough hands on deck for all the pushing of beams and turning of windlasses that were required to open the lock gates. Even the five-year-olds became experts on knotting the ropes on the tow path and clambering in and out of the boats, with their life jackets on of course. For the more lethargic - me - there was nothing more strenuous to do than chuck a rope up to the crew on the river bank and go back to reading the newspaper.
Incidentally, one of the services the Houstouns provided was to bring us two newspapers every morning when they joined the boats for the day's sailing. One morning they brought three as the two we usually read had such depressing headlines along the lines of "Israel Lost War."
"We tried to find a paper without anything about Israel on the front page," they explained apologetically.
THE BOATS chug along at about three to four miles an hour and everyone had a go at turning the tiller. It's not quite as simple as it looks at first, as was proven when Grenadier, trying to pass under a rather narrow bridge, found itself broadside on, as Euan, watching in horror from Trincomalee which was speeding ahead, shouted to Joanna, "they've cocked up Trowers."
Eventually however they got the hang of it and we were all able to enjoy the passing sights including a view of John Donne's summer house, the ruins of Newark Priory and Lewis Carroll's home near Guildford.
Exploring the countryside was limited to walking between the locks which meant a brisk two-mile trot along the tow path, or looking around once the boats had been moored for the night, round about six in the evening.
Evening entertainment consisted of a walk to the local pub or watching the television on the boat. One evening we even watched a video of Hancock's Half Hour!
One day was set aside for a visit to the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens at Wisley where one could enjoy the best of English gardens, riots of color and classical avenues of lawns and poplars. My Israeli son-in-law, who is head of the Garden and Landscape department of our town, went around snapping the gorgeous flower beds, so don't be surprised if Kfar Saba suddenly starts to look like an English country garden.
Another day they all tried their hand at fishing, which requires special permits. And another half day was given over to a shopping and sightseeing visit to Guildford, a bustling red brick town with a ruined castle and even a very old synagogue to visit.
At the end of five wonderful days away from it all, we headed back to the city and spent Shabbat in Golders Green, the suburb of London which is beginning to look more and more like Bnei Brak. It was like being on another planet; but the beautiful English countryside lingered on, in memory at least.
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