My father's love of boats began on the Thames. In 1928, he had a small dinghy that he rowed, earning coppers from a boatman who liked him. He told he lost this boat once and had to walk from Greenwich to Charing Cross pier to find it.
The police had found it on their barge. I wonder what they thought to this 8 year old child asking for his boat back. I checked, and there has been a flood in 1928, that's how he'd lost his precious boat.
There have been many boats in my life all centred around Humber, Thames, Dover, Wight, all down to my father's love of boats and the sea. When the war came my father was desperate to enlist in the navy but his eyesight was poor, the army it was. He was furious, but did his time earning a M.C in the process. We never knew he had been so very brave.
Alida with Hugh Cudlipp, festival weekend Honfleur
After the war, he found you could buy lifeboats very cheaply, owing to the redundant cruise ships all around the U.K. He spent years converting this first one to become my first boat, ‘The Constance Star’( Constance was my mother’s name). This meant engines, wheelhouse, beds and galley. He was very talented.
He sailed her round from Ramsgate and up the Thames to Putney, where it was moored at the Hurlingham Yacht Club. Sounds very fancy, but at the time, 1956, it was a Nissan hut just to the side of Putney Bridge.
1955 Kingston Bridge, on board The Constance Star
As a toddler I was hooked to the railings and loved feeding the swans. Boats became my life too. We went up the Thames to Kingston, then Oxford. Glorious holidays and weekends. My father claimed that I was so healthy owing to the amount of Thames mud I had played in. I'm not so sure ! I do remember getting covered in grey smelly mud though and finding nice and really horrible things all around.
It was at Putney that my father heard a shout from a cabin cruiser going by. It was Hugh Cudlipp, his boss at the Mirror. I have to write now that they said something like, ‘good heavens what are you doing’, but you can imagine I'm sure what they really said. They had no idea that either of them had a passion for boats. This was the start of a tremendous 50 year friendship.
My father had been working on his second boat, the ‘Con Caro’ named after my mother and I, but it all stopped as he joined Hugh willingly, as navigator, engineer and drinking partner, up the Thames, over the channel, and up the Seine. I have mentioned the lovely Laranda, then Alida, but I haven't mentioned the Chinese Junk.
Hugh Cudlipp with the Chinese Junk on the container ship
Hugh had been in Hong Kong and seen these colourful craft all around and decided he wanted one. It was to be kept on the Thames, up river at Sonning. Why not! This beautiful boat was shipped over to the UK strapped to the deck of a container ship. My father roared with laughter when he saw it. First, they had to sail it up river. Of course this required coolie hats, photographers and my poor father trying to steer this specialised craft up past Parliament, Hampton Court and home to Sonning. If you’ve never been on one, then unsteady is the best word to describe the experience, but with bright red sails and almost orange varnish, she looked spectacular.
Sundays were spent taking the junk downriver just far enough to ensure that the pubs by the river, the relaxed drinkers on the grassy banks and the tourists had a real, ‘did I just see that, how much have I had to drink moment’. Great fun.
My mother who had no sea legs at all really had an uncomfortable time on board. Below decks she was very well kitted out except for one small unusual feature that my mother discovered on using the ‘head’, the loo. There were two chains, unfortunately one was for the overhead shower. I'll just leave that there.
What happened to the junk ? Sold to ITV for a television series they were making, but there was still Alida safely moored in Hamble, two births from Edward Heath’s Morning Cloud.