Here’s Brierley House in Bath. I’ve never been there but many of the folk I meet today know it well. Here’s the rub with this canal business: when I go to work, I pretty much know who I’m going to be dealing with during the course of the day, but it’s a different kettle of fish with volunteering.
The weather doesn’t help. It clearly hasn’t bothered to look at the forecast or, if it has, it’s decided to be non-committal. I dress in an optimistic summer top but stuff a jumper in the rucksack just in case. As the up-too-early car grumbles up Spread Eagle Hill, the mist descends before evolving into a thick fog which doesn’t lift until Warminster; a place which should, in any case, be permanently shrouded in cloud. At a quarter to nine, a woman in the BP garage at Longbridge Deverill tells me that, if it’s like Friday, it will be a nice day by 3pm. Life in Longbridge Deverill must be meteorologically resolute: years ago, I stopped at The George when it was proper hostelry. An ancient being, propping himself up against the pub wall, told me that after the war, people had said, ‘what we need now is a drop of rain and it hasn’t bloody stopped since’.
By the time I reach Bradford on Avon, I’ve made the first decision of the day: put on the jumper. I know who my fellow crew members will be. I volunteered for this outing on the basis of this information. I also know that it’s a private charter to the Avoncliff Aqueduct and back but I don’t know who’s hired the boat. It could be anyone with the correct amount of money: last time it was the Trefoil Society but it could just as well be a hen party. It’s thirty five people from Brierley House.
Brierley House is the HQ of the Peggy Dodd centre – a charity supporting those who care for relatives with memory loss at home. Embarking the Barbara McLellan this morning are staff, volunteers, carers and those experiencing memory loss; which is a positive, if euphemistic way, of describing those with no way back from dementia. For a volunteer galley maid, hoping to get a few more boxes ticked in the book of hours, this means learning how to work the boat lift. And it’s not just mechanics: it’s how to persuade the acutely anxious to step onto the boat in the first place; how to persuade them to ‘cuddle’ their relatives during the descent of three feet; how, having accomplished this, to leave the lift and find a seat on the boat.
Those in charge had brought amazing looking home-made cakes. Those in the galley are non-stop on the tea & coffee front: who wants black? Who wants a tiny cup? Who wants this or that? In the day job, I work with people with learning differences and disabilities but all my objectivities and nods to political correctness depart as I engage with folk who know exactly how they want their hot drink but are terrified to stand and look out the window at life on the canal. These are smartly dressed people trapped in that evil state of recognisable loss of control. Reader, I make no apologies for being profoundly moved. And, of course, once back at the wharf, we have to go through everything in reverse in order to enable our new friends to gain landfall safely.
Journeying up a few remote country lanes, I draw up at The New Inn , Westwood for lunch. I’m considering sitting indoors as the weather has not improved but, once through the door, I change my mind. The first thing that catches my beady eye is a notice for a £100 High Gun event. I don’t even know what this means but, in terms of gender equality, I’m delighted to learn that there will be a ‘ladies’ shoot’ involving the option of the death of thirty birds. Well, thank goodness for that. The bar is lined with Labradors and the landed gentry. Edging my way round to an apparently unseen spot, in which I might order a bowl of watercress soup, I overhear a few snippets: ‘the John Deere covers the lawn in two hours’. Well would you expect less? ‘My grandfather was a Victorian farmer’, announces an extremely old being, gender undetermined, who I later spot staggering across the car-park. The soup was delicious but I’m not recommending them as they charged me £5 despite having no bread.
And, to finish this day, I zoom off to the Peto garden at Iford Manor that I thoroughly recommend. Here are a few photos which, because in the real world I’m struggling with Windows 10, aren’t in any order. Please have a look and scroll to the end where there’s an unexpectedly important message:
I remain touched by the folk aboard today. I think the work of the volunteers and the carers is magnificent in its ‘there but for the grace of your god’ rationale. Donating money will not, sadly, solve anyone’s problems. However, it will pay for experiential trips which may, at least, broaden horizons and give respite to those who support the otherwise abandoned: https://www.justgiving.com/spepeggydodd/