Book review: Circle Line – around London in a small boat

Circle Line by Steffan Meyric Hughes

I’ve never read a book quite like Circle Line before. I’ve read many, many boaty adventures, but this tale of voyaging through central London on the Thames and completing a loop made up of canals in North London written by Classic Boat staffer Steffan Meyric Hughes is something else again.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading – certainly it is.

No-one in this book sails in fear of being smashed by a giant wave, or of hitting rocks, and the views he has to describe are mixed to say the least. There are some lovely stretches, especially along the Thames, but elsewhere the scenery varies from carefully crafted canal-age grandeur to neglected corners of  concrete jungle run wild with weeds and old barbed wire.

Pottering along in his boat borrowed from Swallow Boats, Meyric Hughes finds himself in a series of odd spots, camping out alongside his moored boat in forgotten places amid the city’s bustle. He meets a variety of interesting, helpful and entertaining river dwellers and Environment Authority employees, spends days with old friends, invents private games to entertain himself on the lonelier stretches, and generally enjoys a trip that must have been unforgettable – finding himself in a little viaduct he’d never previously noticed crossing over a familiar road was clearly quite a moment.

Refreshingly, he describes it all without making a meal of being deliberately odball – unlike another well known small boat voyager of recent years whose book I couldn’t finish. Readers will likely know the one I mean…

Meyric Hughes also embarks on a series of writerly diversions that illuminate bits of London and boating history, as well also his own mind. One of the best is determined rant against the plague of plastic boats that is no doubt inspired by his day job of comissioning, editing and writing material about traditionally built craft. Here’s a sample:

‘GRP is not, as it’s commonly assumed, the superior successor to wood for boatbuilding. It has virtually no insulation against the cold, it sweats condensation in the cabin, and through its thin walls you can hear everything… GRP boats are easier to maintain and cheaper to buy, being made out of poison and pressed in moulds. At the end of their lives, they sit in their hundreds up every creek and river and marina in the land. The owner might have stopped using their boat years ago, and he’s still paying his yearly mooring fee. What else can he do? It’s too strong to break up and too big to take to the tip. If you really don’t like someone, leave him a yacht in your will.’

And so on and so forth. What he has to say about plastic boats is no word of a lie, but there’s an irony here of course… the author behind this words is himself a canoeist who learned to sail in a rotomoulded Topper on Bewl Water, and made his journey through London in a plywood boat held together by epoxy and waterproof glue. But, let’s be honest, lots of us who are interested in traditional craft actually sail plastic craft for very good practical and economic reasons.

We’ve had some dreadful weather lately, and I gather it’s set to continue for a bit longer. I suggest you buy a copy of Circle Line to read when stuck indoors on a wet weekend afternoon, or as a diversion for the train. You’ll be entertained and likely something new about our capital city and its strange, turtle-infested waterways – and you might think of some similarly easily accessible but interesting journey of your own.

It got me thinking of dusting off an old dream of navigating from the top to the bottom of all the rivers that run to the sea around Kent and Sussex in a little plywood rowing dory. Maybe when I finally get to retire I’ll still be fit enough to do something of the sort…

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Coniston Regatta 2013, 30th May to the 1st June

swallow 4

 

swallow 9 [1024x768] redwing 249, tideway and aurora 2 [1024x768] good wood 3 [1024x768]

The fourth Coniston Regatta 2013 runs from Thursday 30th May to the Saturday the 1st June, and everyone is invited – including traditional boat owners and their boats.

Organiser Greg Simpson has been in touch to say that among the boats booked in so far include a 1930s Peterborough canoe, a 1910s Thames sailing skiff, and numerous steam launches and model boats.

The events are based at the English Lake District home of Swallows & Amazons, Bank Ground Farm – which in the book is called Holly Howe and is the holiday home where the Swallows stayed each summer.

Attractions for boating enthusiasts and kids include exhibition stands presented by Windermere Steamboat Museum, Good Wood Boatbuilders, Patterson Boatworks and various other local craftsmen, and steam engines.

SY Gondola and Coniston Launch will be available for trips, there will be boats for hire and some boat owners attending the regatta will be offering sailing trips.

Children will enjoy a kids’ fishing competition and a miniature railway. The tea rooms open from 11am each day.

There are also a range of evening entertainments, including an outdoor screening of a film version of Swallows and Amazons.

Lovely Youtube video of classic Troy racing yachts off Fowey

There’s a high definition version featuring different music here. The film was taken by Troy class racing yacht skipper John Forsyth, who captured his material by strapping a camera to various parts of his boat.

We’re glad he did. My thanks to Fowey traditional boat builder Marcus Lewis for pointing out this one!

PSMax, who writes the Bursledon Blog has a post on the Troys, and a few nice photos.