Chapter 2 – View From A Bridge
How To Build A Boat – A Father, His Daughter and The Unsailed Sea, is published in the UK by Simon and Schuster, and will be published by Scribner in the US in 2019
Only for the very briefest of moments did I doubt the wisdom of becoming a father again at the age of fifty-eight.
Phoebe Louisa May Gornall was born in Ipswich hospital in the English county of Suffolk on Wednesday, 23 April 2014. Weighing in at 7lb 10oz, she made her debut in the Deben delivery suite, named after the most mysterious of the six rivers that entwine land and sea in an intimate, mystical embrace in this easternmost part of the British Isles.
Setting sail on the adventure of her life at exactly 3.13pm, she timed her launch well. At the Port of Ipswich on the nearby
River Orwell the tide at that moment was almost exactly at mid-flood, which, as any sailor knows, is by far the safest time to embark on an exploration of uncharted waters. If you do run aground, the rising tide will soon lift you off.
It had been a long, testing labour for my wife, Kate, and, thanks to a devoted midwife who bought her a little more time from a passing consultant obstetrician who was pushing for a Caesarean section, it ended in a natural birth. Watching mother and daughter gazing into each other’s eyes was the most unspeakably moving thing I have ever witnessed.
The following morning I drove Kate and Phoebe home to our apartment on the south bank of the Stour, the river that defines the boundary between the counties of Suffolk and Essex on its way to the North Sea at Harwich. The thirty-minute journey took us first across the neighbouring Orwell, on the arching concrete bridge that carries the A14 over the river, and that was when it happened.
The parapets on the bridge are too high to allow the river to be seen from a car and on the approach from the north bank trees mostly obscure the view. But if you know when to glance across to your left, a vantage point opens up fleetingly just as the road rears up to meet the bridge. It grants no more than a single, subliminal frame, but I do know when to look and on this day of days something makes me do so.
. . . the first of the season’s boats, freed from the purdah of a long winter ashore, back on the water, noses sniffing at the tide and snatching impatiently at their mooring lines . . .
And then it’s gone. But what the retina misses, memory supplies.
I learnt to sail on the Orwell as an eleven-year-old boy, unexpectedly transported from the postwar bomb site that was
Peckham in south London to an experimental boarding school for disadvantaged kids run by the Inner London Education Authority. It was a reversal of fortune that continues to surprise me and for which I have always been profoundly grateful.
Woolverstone Hall was situated on the Shotley Peninsula, in an eighteenth-century Palladian mansion perched in a commanding position high on the south bank of the Orwell. The peninsula, a stone-age arrowhead of land pointing east towards the North Sea, as though in readiness for the next wave of seaborne invaders, is framed by the Orwell to the north and the Stour to the south. The twin rivers, so different in their characters – one narrow and busy, the other broad and brooding – come together near the sea to separate the modern container port of Felixstowe on the Suffolk shore from the ancient Essex harbour of Harwich.
After the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons and then the Vikings came this way, each in turn tempted to venture up the rivers of the east coast in their shallow-hulled ships. Behind them they left echoes of their lives and their deaths in the language, the culture and the soil.
Barring the bulge of Norfolk, protruding rump-like into the North Sea, this is about as far east in the UK as it is possible to go. Denmark, just 350 miles away, is closer to Harwich than the north of Scotland. About 8 miles long and, at its widest, no more than 5 miles across, the peninsula is a quiet place, generally untroubled by the sound and fury of the modern world. Unless they come by sea, as in summer descendants of the Norsemen occasionally do, in yachts flying Danish or Norwegian flags, people do not generally stumble upon the peninsula by accident.
All my boats, dreams and adventures were launched on the Shotley Peninsula, and this is where I now live with Kate and Phoebe. At the turn of the millennium I was lucky enough to find a cottage to rent on the water’s edge at Pin Mill, a small village on the south bank of the Orwell well known to generations of sailors, from the crews of the large ocean-going grain ships that dropped anchor here in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, transferring their cargoes to Thames sailing barges bound upriver for Ipswich, to the yachtsmen for whom this place remains a place of pilgrimage, steeped in history.
Here in the 1930s the English children’s author Arthur Ransome, creator of the Swallows and Amazons stories, had two yachts built at Harry King’s, a boatyard that is still in business today. Here, too, was the jumping-off point for Ransome’s fictional children’s adventures, Secret Water and We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea.
I, on the other hand, most certainly did mean to and it was here that I laid my plans to row across the Atlantic.
Pin Mill was also where I moored Sea Beatrice. The modest but beautiful 24ft clinker-hulled sloop-rigged Finesse had been built in 1979 in a yard in Thundersley, Essex, which had long since closed its doors. Sea Beatrice and I spent a summer in the late 1990s exploring the east coast and a maritime history that told the story of seaborne adventure and exploration, from the coming of the Romans, the Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings to the departure of the Mayflower and its captain Christopher Jones, both born in Harwich, at the confluence of the Stour and Orwell.
On summer evenings at Pin Mill, sitting on the brick steps leading down from the garden of the cottage to the river’s edge and watching Sea Beatrice swing eagerly round on her mooring to face the new flood was to sense the call of the river’s infinite promise. That way, downstream, lay everything, and everywhere. Who could resist that siren song and the numberless possibilities of which it sang?
That was why, in 2011, after four years spent working in tax-free exile in Dubai to raise funds, I had planned to scale back my career as a journalist, abandon shore-based living for good and invest my modest gains in a small but sea-friendly wooden boat – another Finesse, perhaps, if I could find one.
Like most of my grand plans, it was poorly thought through. Nevertheless, I fondly imagined myself pottering endlessly and aimlessly around the coast of Britain, an increasingly ancient mariner exploring isolated coves and rivers, putting in to picturesque harbours and quay- sides to buy supplies and writing the occasional article to pay for them. After that? Something, as Wilkins Micawber always insisted, would turn up.
Thankfully, life, love and serendipity intervened and that theory never had to be tested. By chance I became reac- quainted with Kate, a past love, and suddenly we could find no good reason not to take up where we’d left off many years before. In August 2012 we were married in the Pier Hotel at Harwich and, twenty months later, here we are, driving over the Orwell Bridge with the one-day-old Phoebe Louisa May on the backseat.
The subliminal message I take from that brief, freeze-framed view from a bridge is that my previous life, and all my other plans, are suddenly and irrevocably behind me. I know I will never return to unfinished business in the Atlantic, that I will probably never own another yacht and that almost certainly my dream of circumnavigating the British Isles lies dead in the water.
But, glancing in the mirror at Kate, one arm stretched protectively across the small miracle in the car seat alongside her, I also realise that I couldn’t care less about any of that.
The beautiful, exhausting and exhilarating late-life surprise who overnight has become the captain of my ship is my grand adventure now, and one that will prove to be more challenging than anything I have ever contemplated.
Well, almost anything.